About a month ago I was interviewed by the author Pam Cable for her blog. Pam is a generous writer who reaches out to others and promotes their writing journeys, and I was honored to be included.
And now I’d like to return the favor by offering this short review of her new book, The Sanctum, which was just released. First I’ll share the blurb she asked me to write, and then a very short review. Not that the book doesn’t deserve a longer one, but I don’t want to share any spoilers!
Pamela Cable has crafted a mystical coming of age story with The Sanctum that reminds one of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Set just north of Kidd’s story, in the mountains of North Carolina, but with similar trappings—a young protagonist escapes an abusive upbringing and finds herself in a surprising Native American setting where family secrets are revealed and a lifetime of suffering is avenged. Cable’s Neeley also takes the reader back to Harper Lee’s “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird. Beautiful prose dotted with colorful dialogue and panoramic scenery enriches this page-turning Southern mystery.—Susan Cushman, editor, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (coming in 2017 from Mercer Universitiy Press); contributor to The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul and Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality.
The Sanctum review:
“With Comparisons to The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird”
Not what I expected. I knew Pamela Cable’s novel would embody elements of childhood abuse, cult-like environments, and redemption. But I wasn’t ready for the wealth of cultural richness revealed through the Native American history she weaves beautifully throughout the story and the spiritual environment in which she sets the second half of The Sanctum.
Jim Crow and totem poles in one story? Cable’s brave young protagonist Neeley calls to mind Harper’s Lee’s Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Set two decades later—in the 1950s and 60s—not much has changed in the racially oppressed South. Neeley’s African American hero Gideon Jackson is embraced by readers as much or more than Scout’s Tom Robinson.
Neeley also reminds the reader of Sue Monk Kidd’s 14-year-old Lily from The Secret Life of Bees, born around the same time as Neeley—in 1950—in South Carolina. All three heroines, Scout, Lily, and Neeley, share wisdom and courage and a thirst for justice and understanding beyond their years.
Today is the first day since May 6 I have been at home with some “down time.” Here’s what the past three and a half weeks have looked like:
May 6-19 – Paris
May 19 – home for 15 hours
May 20-25 – Jackson, Mississippi (in hospital with Mom, her funeral, etc.)
May 25-28 – daughter Beth and 4-year-old granddaughter Gabby here with us
May 29 – church, wedding for a friend’s son, reception
And so Memorial Day arrives and my agenda changes to this:
Breakfast in jammies
Watch golf and tennis on TV in jammies
Look through cards and flower notes from Mom’s funeral and start thank you notes
PRAY AND COLOR…
About six weeks ago I let everyone know about my friend Sybil McBeth’s new book, Pray and Color. I was so happy to receive my copy a few days ago, and to begin using it this morning. After reading some of the introductory pages, I chose template #27 and filled in the thoughts/prayers I wanted to offer and then colored in the design. The page fits perfectly with the Prayers for the Departed that I’m continuing for my mother for forty days after her death.
Now I feel everything starting to slow down and my body beginning to rest. Thanks for this amazing gift, Sybil.
I’ve begun again the tradition of reading Psalms and praying the Prayer for the Departed for my mother, which I will continue for forty days. Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent article about this practice on his blog, Glory To God For All Things:
I especially like this part:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wisdom 3:1-7)
Last October I had the blessing of praying these prayers for my dear friend Sissy Yerger. When I saw her husband, Father Paul Yerger, and her daughter Wisdom at Mom’s funeral, we talked about how Sissy, who had dementia and visited my mother in the nursing home as she declined with Alzheimer’s, expressed a fear of having to endure a similar fate, and how gracious God was to grant her a quick death. But as a Christian, I try to believe that God loves each of us and to accept the path we have been given to walk.
I am comforted by reflecting on the love so many people showed by coming and sharing flowers and music and hugs and memories. May her memory be eternal.
My mother’s cousin from Meridian, Mississippi, where Mother grew up, Mae Jaqua Garrett, handed me an envelope at the funeral. She had found the wedding announcement and invitation to my parents’ wedding from 1948. What a treasure!
I’ve been blogging about my mother—and my long-distance caregiving for her as her Alzheimer’s advanced—since 2007. Today I’m thankful to share the news that her struggle with this awful disease is over. Mother died Sunday, May 22, at 1:20 p.m. at St. Dominics Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. She had wonderful assistance from the caring nurses and doctors at St. Dominics, and also from Hospice Ministries the final three days of her life. And I had wonderful help from our oldest son, Jon, our niece Aubrey Leigh, and several friends who spent time with Mom in the hospital. Many blessings.
My first cousin, Jimmy Jones, is a pulmonary physician in Jackson, and takes care of many elderly patients. I was blessed to have him involved in Mom’s care. He is very familiar with end-of-life issues. Jimmy shared an article with me by Harvard physician Atul Gawande. It’s lengthy but well worth the read:
We are burying Mom today at Natchez Trace Memorial Park Cemetery, where we buried my brother, my father, and a dear friend’s daughter. Their graves are just a few feet apart on a little hill with a beautiful tree and a bench for sitting and praying or remembering these loved ones. My husband will officiate the funeral—which was Mom’s request to him many years ago. I’ll close this post with the obituary which appears in Jackson’s Clarion Ledger newspaper today. I love you, Mom. May God grant you paradise.
Effie Watkins Johnson
Effie Jeanne Watkins Johnson of Jackson, Mississippi, died on May 22 at the age of 88. She was preceded in death by her husband, W. E. (Bill) Johnson, Jr., and her son, Michael Johnson, both of Jackson. She is survived by her daughter, Susan Johnson Cushman, of Memphis; grandchildren Jonathan Cushman of New Orleans, Jason Cushman and Elizabeth Cushman Davis of Denver, Aubrey Leigh Johnson Goodwin of Jackson, and Chelsea Boothe Bennett of Atlanta; and six great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Johnson was born on February 20, 1928, in Tyler, Texas, to Emma Sue Covington Watkins and Horatio Miles Watkins. She grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, and graduated from Mississippi State College for Women. She married Bill Johnson in 1948 and taught at Central High School and as a substitute teacher in the Jackson Public Schools. She and her husband were charter members of Covenant Presbyterian Church. After Mr. Johnson’s retirement from U.S.F. & G. Insurance Company in 1982, the couple opened Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports, which they operated together until its closing in 1997, one year prior to Mr. Johnson’s death. Mrs. Johnson had been a resident at Lakeland Nursing Home since 2009 as a result of Alzheimer’s Disease.
One legacy Mrs. Johnson left her children was the tradition she and Mr. Johnson had of greeting one another every morning with “This is the day the Lord has made!” and the response, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” After his death, she would say the greeting and response to her husband as she looked at a picture of the two of them in her bedroom, having a firm conviction that he was very much alive in Heaven. Her daughter and son-in-law have continued the tradition to this day.
Visitation will be at Natchez Trace Funeral Home at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 24, followed by a service in the chapel at 11 a.m. and the interment at Natchez Trace Cemetery, 759 US-51, Madison, MS 39110. Memorials may be made to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
My mother, Effie Johnson, has been in the hospital for just over a week now, and today she’s being transferred to Hospice care, either here in the hospital or in a facility not far from here. She’s making her final ascent to heaven, and I’m here, watching, like I’ve done with several family members and a special friend over the years.
I remember my mother and I holding my father’s hands as he passed over into eternity. I felt like I was touching both heaven and earth at the same time. And now, almost eighteen years later, I’m holding my mother’s hand, singing to her and praying with her and trying to comfort her. Today her eyes are glazed over and seem to be fixed on the ceiling—she no longer makes eye contact with me when I talk to her. Her breathing is a bit labored, but she’s on meds for comfort. I’m so thankful to be here with her, watching. I feel that she is saying to me, as Jesus said to his disciples, “stay here and keep watch with me.”
I also strongly feel my father’s presence in the room, and I believe he’s praying for her as well. They were married 49 years before cancer took him at the young age of 68. They were devoted to each other, and taught my husband and I a tradition which we’ve been keeping for almost two decades now: First thing every morning, one of us will say to the other, “This is the day the Lord has made!” and the other will reply, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” When we’re apart, like now, we text our secret greeting and reponse: TITDTLHM! LURABGII! (which sounds like this if you say it aloud: “tit diddle hum!” “lurabgi!”) After my father died, mother would say the greeting and response to his photograph in her bedroom every morning. I’ve been showing her this photograph and saying those words to her. I hope it won’t be long now. I hope she is already seeing him in Heaven.
Paris was wonderful! So busy there was no time for blogging. But while we were there my 88-year-old mother was taken to the hospital. We got home late Tuesday night, and I was able to drive to Jackson Wednesday afternoon to be with her, thankfully before she leaves us for Heaven. She seems comfortable, with help from oxygen and Morphine, but mostly from all the folks in Jackson who have been with her while I was in Paris, and also our oldest son, Jon, and our niece, Aubrey Leigh.
She squeezes my hands as I sing to her and read the 23rd Psalm (her favorite) and tell her that Jesus is preparing a place for her in Heaven. We are just waiting with her as she makes this final journey. It is a sacred place, this waiting. I remember doing it with my father back in 1998.
Our younger son, Jason, posted the following words about his grandmother on Facebook the other day. Jason is a compassionate soul, and also a good writer, so I want to share what I have called his “Ode to Granny Effie.”
What do I remember about you?
I remember a woman that was always happy. Always so polite and hospitable. I could instantly see where my mother got her manners from, manners she then passed on to her children. “Southern Hospitality” is more than just a phrase. It has deep meaning in the way we treat other people and no one was more loving than you. I don’t remember ever hearing you say a word in anger. Not once. But I also can’t remember Papaw saying a word in anger either… so perhaps that is just how all grandkids are supposed to remember the elders they love and respect. I remember feeling different, but never feeling like I was “adopted” in Jackson, Mississippi. This is no small thing because I was continuously reminded of that later in life. There are frozen mental images of Phidippides , clothes on racks, a back room with a play area, and a workout room. I don’t know what is my memory and what are figments of my imagination, but in most of them you are smiling. You are there offering us a peppermint piece of gum, the square ones with the liquid in the middle. They are great memories because I remember you in them. I imagine, although I thankfully can’t remember, that my year prior to arriving in Jackson was not the happiest time in my life. I imagine a lot of the happiness I found was due to your kindness, that of you and your husband. The gift of your daughter, my mother, and their gift in turn in adopting me. Of giving me the life that although sometimes has been dark… now is a light unto itself with my wife and children, which I never thought I would have. I hope you aren’t in pain right now. I hope you know we love you.
This is day 3 of our visit to Paris, the “City of Lights.” I’m learning so much—didn’t know that Paris was the first city with street lamps (17th century) which is why it’s called the City of Lights. It’s also the first city with a sewer system that really works. So full of history, incredible architecture and natural beauty. It’s the most popular destination in the world, with over 80 million people visiting it yearly.
Paris is only 1/15th the size of London, and yet it’s also the city that invented people-watching, because it has 10-12 million people, making it the most densely populated city in Europe. Its 1860 boundaries are still in place, holding it to its geographic size for over a century. Most of the outdoor cafes have the chairs turned towards the street, where you can sit side-by-side with your companion and watch the people go by. Like this fascinating guy on his bicycle in the Le Marais district, which we toured on Sunday.
One of the first Celtic tribes who settled on what is now the Island of Notre Dame in between 300 and 400 BC (there’s no evidence of this, but much speculation) was called “Paris.” The first architectural evidence of civilization here are Roman artifacts from around 27 BC.
In the 1950s Paris—and especially Bercy Village, the area where we are staying—was the largest wine distribution center in the world. There are many interesting renovated wine warehouses that have been turned into shops and restaurants near our apartment. I’m enjoying the wine, but not on the scale of the early Parisians, who drank an average of 4-5 liters of wine a day in the 19th century.
Paris is a wheat-growing region with a reputation for excellent bread from quality wheat (which is higher in gluten than most wheat). Every year a “Best Baguette in Paris” award is given to a bakery, which then has the honor of supplying the French president with bread for the following year.
Our wonderful tour guide gave a terrific talk on the history of Paris yesterday, hence these gems I’m sharing today. He included lots of information about the political and academic life here, as well as why Paris became a haven for writers and artists seeking freedom of expression after the Enlightenment. The Beat Generation flocked here in the 1950s, but since the ‘70s lots of young people have chosen Berlin, since it’s cheaper. Today we’re touring the Latin Quarter, where lots of those young people lived fifty years ago, where they actually spoke Latin to each other! Today the University of Paris has over 250 thousand students on 20 campuses. I loved the book-sellers set up in kiosks along the Seine, known as bouquinistes.
This morning we toured the Latin Quarter and learned about the French Revolution. Fascinating walking tour (British guide was terrific) including the oldest café in Paris, stories about Danton and the radical Cordeliers, the guillotine and the death of Marat. And here’s a hat Napoleon left as an offering at a café when he couldn’t pay the Tab.
This is an “immersion” trip, so we stay in an apartment in a small district away from the center of Paris. Every day we have a short lecture before heading out on a tour, or a guided tour with lecture as we go. So far our daily guides have been great – one from the U.S. (who has lived in Paris since 1994) and one from England. Our group includes folks from Alabama, Tennessee and Iowa, and a terrific Parisian tour guide overseeing the whole trip. Kudos to AHI Travel for great organization. We’re enjoying everyone so much. My only complaint so far is that my feet are killing me, since we walk between 6 and 12 miles/day on concrete and cobblestone. But it’s worth it! Off to Versailles tomorrow. I’m having problems downloading pictures on my blog, but More photos are on Facebook. Au revoir!
We’re off to Paris this morning! What a way to end Bright Week! (We celebrated Pascha/Easter this past Sunday, May 1.) We’ve been planning this trip for over a year, so when the terrorist attacks happened, several people asked if we were still going. We never hesitated (although we did get trip insurance in case something happens). This article in the April 6 Wall Street Journal says that “Paris tourism, hit hard by the November attacks, has rebounded significantly” in spite of those terrorist attacks. (The article also talks about trip insurance, which we researched carefully before purchasing.) So, as my friend Sarah says, if you’re not safe in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, you’re not really “safe” anywhere. You live carefully, but not in fear.
One other thing is challenging my faith as we leave today… the fear that my mother might die while we’re gone. She was a little more diminished on my last visit to her in the nursing home in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago, and I realized that I’ve been asking Jesus when can she go home and be with my father for a couple of years now. I am often delusional enough to think that I’m in control of things, when of course I’m not. I recently asked Him to please let her live until we get home from Paris. Asking for a convenient time for my mother’s death? That’s pretty messed up, right? As the French say, que pouvez-vous fiaire?
Saint John Climacus, a sixth century monk who wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an instruction book for monks, says this about fear:
Cowardice is a falling away from faith that comes of expecting the unexpected. Fear is a loss of conviction.
Expecting the unexpected. Like the possibility that my mother might die while we're in Paris. I've been praying all week that I will quite dwelling on that and dwell instead on the assurance of things hoped for, which is one definition of faith. And so we leave for Paris without fear, but with great anticipation of the joy we'll share as we take in the history, the art, the people, the landscapes, the food the wine.... Watch for pictures on Facebook and maybe a blog post eventually. Au revoir!
I’m still working on my essay for the “Joy” essay contest for the Creative Nonfiction Journal, and I need to spend a couple more hours on it today to finish it and send it in, so this blog post will be short. I’m so grateful to two writing buddies for critiquing my essay and giving me feedback—NancyKay Wessman and Sally Palmer Thomason.
And speaking of creative nonfiction and Sally Thomason, her new book is out:
Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson (University Press of Mississippi)
You can ORDER IT HERE.
I’m looking forward to hosting Sally for a literary salon in our home again soon, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her at bookstores and events in Memphis, Oxford, Greenwood, Jackson, and other places in the coming months. She did an incredible job sharing the stories that have endeared Betty Bobo Pearson to so many people and will surely create new fans as people read this book.
On a personal note, we’re leaving for Paris this Friday (yes!) so I might not blog as regularly for a couple of weeks. I appreciate my readers so much and have tried to post faithfully three times a week for the past nine years. Please forgive me if I take a break!
A friend sent me a link to an incredible article in the New York Times:
I was initially going to share a few pull quotes and make some comments and observations about the article, but the day has taken over my time for writing, and the piece is very long, so I don’t want to cut into your reading time. It’s a MUST READ for anyone who is a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s, or a potential caregiver or patient. Incredibly well written account.
And one more link, this time to the “Your Health” column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
My husband knows the Harvard physician who wrote the column and is impressed with him.
That’s all for today… just sharing information. Have a wonderful Bright Week! (week after Parscha for Orthodox Christians)