>Up Through the Dirt


I went to sleep thinking about the first chapters I had just read in Joshilyn Jackson’s new novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. I woke up dreaming about Mamaw, my mother’s mother, who died twenty three years ago. (That’s Mamaw and me, in 1984, a year before she died. Her name is Emma Sue… my namesake.) If there’s a connection between Joshilyn’s novel and my grandmother, I haven’t made it yet, but who knows…. I’m in the middle of writing a memoir, and trying to remain open to what Dinty Moore taught me about “discovery” at the Creative Nonfiction Workshop last month.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, about Joshilyn and her (third) book. She’s the gifted writer I met last summer at the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference (that’s us at right) the one who said to me, at the end of one of the workshops she taught (in addition to being the keynote speaker): “Go forth and blog.” She’s the reason I created Pen and Palette to begin with, so from time to time I’ll pause to give her a nod and some of the endless white space on this magical paperless notebook. (By the way, this is my 101st post since I started the blog in August! I guess I should have celebrated my 100th post on Tuesday, but it wasn’t on my radar.)

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming has that rare combination of page-turning story line and literary excellence. You can hardly get through a single paragraph without the delightful experience of yet another of her magical metaphors or over-the-top character descriptions. She makes the most ordinary actions (not that there are very many of those in her books!) jump off the page. A dead girl shows up in Laurel’s backyard swimming pool, and as she and her husband, daughter, and daughter’s spend-the-night friend stand frozen in shock at the scene, Joshilyn describes it this way:

A flood of people, paramedics and policemen, poured through the glass doors, streaming around the four of them as if they were rocks in a river.

Later she describes a suspicious character this way:

Stan Webelow had a pixieman face, and his hands were moist and soft, as if he’d deboned them.

As if he’d deboned them? Who thinks that way? A brilliant wordsmith. And I love how she captures the “Southern way” that’s such a part of Laurel’s DNA that she can only act in certain ways:

Laurel had been raised on Miss Manners and King James, maybe in that order; neither source had ever told her what was proper on a night like this. She didn’t know if she should offer to make coffee or start screaming until someone gave her medicine.

Isn’t that exactly the dilemma of every Southern woman in a crisis? Coffee? Tea? Nervous breakdown?

I ordered Joshilyn’s book from her “virtual signing” and when I opened it I read her words to me with joy: To Susan: keep writing! XXO, J

As the sun peeked through the windows this morning, I headed outside to take pictures of our Japanese magnolia tree (right) it’s buds trying to break through into the early spring morning, having survived the snow of only six days ago. A squirrel was digging up goodies from the dirt that has been thawing all week. And our camellia bushes were in full bloom… I even had to bring a few in for the kitchen table.

Oreo sneaked out onto the front porch (she’s literally a housecat in her old age) to welcome the new life that was budding everywhere. And I came back inside thinking about Mamaw and why I dreamed about her last night.

Here she is with me and Jason, just before his third birthday, in the spring of 1984. She had Alzheimer’s, and kept asking “who is that little Chinese boy?” She was too far gone to understand that we had adopted Jason from South Korea and he was her great-grandson. I’m so sad that he never knew what an amazing woman she was.

But I knew. Her life is woven throughout the early chapters of the memoir I’m writing, from the years she made all my clothes during the summer vacations I spent at her house in Meridian, Mississippi to the wedding gift she gave me in 1970—a patchwork quilt sewn from scraps of all those dresses. The quilt! That’s it! That’s the connection with Joshilyn’s book and why I dreamed about Mamaw after reading it…. Laurel (in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming) is a QUILTER! So there it is… that mystical connection, always crouching just beneath the surface of our subconscious, if only we will listen for it. I can look at that quilt all these years later and remember what those dresses looked like. With my mother’s onset of Alzheimer’s, I can’t help but worry about my own plight one day, and I wonder if this quilt will help me remember.

Of course there are also dark memories, and as the dirt thaws, they’re coming at me with abandon, and I’m sorting through them, writing some into my book, letting others sift through my fingers, leaving traces of red clay from the hills outside Meridian where my grandfather took us for rides in the back of his pickup truck.
So on this early spring day, I’m thankful for the beautiful things that come up through the dirt and bloom when the dirt thaws…. like camellias and Japanese magnolias. And memoirs. And, yes, Joshilyn, I’m writing!

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