For Christmas, my daughter gave me an Amazon gift card, so of course I looked for a good book to read. But before I get into the choice I made, some backstory. I had a little bit of a rough time this holiday. Part of it has to do with going into the 10th year of my father’s death. His life sometimes feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like from a different world, which no longer exists except in my memories that I try so very hard to keep alive. I tried happily for a few years after his death to re-create that loving excitement for family gatherings that my dad used to do. There is a new world out there that is too self-concerned with things other than true family values, and by values I do not mean some right-wing version of it, but simply the values I learned as I grew up, being around the people who made me feel safe in this world. I strongly hinted of these in Back to the Garden. And I know I, and all of us, are imperfect people, but I have learned from my father that we accept all people, we do not judge, we forgive, we love each other. And that love is active, not simply in thought. But it can only happen when the active love is mutual–some people just drift away and that’s that.
Many of the things that first molded me in life were the kinds of togetherness I felt with cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sister and parents. It was so definite that on major holidays we would see each other, usually gathering at a house in the South–anywhere from Louisville, the gateway to the South, to the hills of eastern Kentucky to Chattanooga, where some of my cousins ended up. I would say that those were the best years of my life, but in truth, they cannot be, for then I would have to rule out that in fact today is part of the best years of my life, because now I am the adult and I wouldn’t not live in this beautiful part of the world with my wonderful husband. The old years, however, taught me many things about life and love–and those things carried with me to today. Where some of my life has changed quite a bit–for instance, moving to Canada, I have also gained a new family with my husband’s grandmother, parents, sister, cousins, etc. And when I am with them, or during the rare chance I get to see my own family, these good times continue. Still, I often reach back to that part of my heart when Dad was alive, and when he instilled in me and my siblings the importance of family and being there for each other, even when far apart. And those lessons primarily took place in the South–where the active love and being together took place. I have blogged about these memories often, but now I slowly learn that I need to continue to create these meaningful moments, at least for those who still find a reason to be there for them! I am often doing southern BBQs in the summer with friends, introducing them to country biscuits, fried chicken, okra, and collard greens–oh, and good corn bread, not the sugary stuff you find up here in Vancouver. We even had a southern road trip back in 2012, where I got to see my sweet cousins. I want to plan something similar again, only this time, just go visit them near Chattanooga and maybe camp out somewhere nearby. I want to spend more time with them. I got to see them again the following year, but it was because their mother died. And we also saw them last summer when we visited the states.
It’s a constant tug-of-war in my heart to go visit what I think of as the not so kind Trump’s America (something I recently blogged about), but I must realize that one person, even though a lot of people like him, does not control everything in the states nor do his values have my respect–that my people are from there when they settled in the south from Ireland and Scotland and England and that to be truly strong I have to face adversity head-on instead of rolling up in a paralyzed ball of apathy or fear of things I cannot change, or to be afraid to even travel there. Nope, I have to hang on to the memories and absolutely believe that goodness and love remain and that life is good, even if I have to look hard to find it sometimes.
So with these southern memories of my childhood, I chose to buy Reese Witherspoon’s memoir Whiskey in a Teacup, which I read in one sitting. That book raised my spirits so high–elevating feelings of loss in my own family to the sometimes dormant realization that you must always look on the bright side of life and make it so if some things aren’t ideal. So I needed that lift, and though I will always always mourn the death of my father and the changes in life since he has been gone, I know that I need to continue to living the kind of life he and my mother taught and that having these sweet memories from growing up must not be grieved or hang heavily with loss but carried onward instead. The book is not only a memoir of southern living, but it is one that recognizes strong women who have worked toward civil rights and have progressed past the ugly part of the south, which is of utmost importance to me if I am to think of the good things. I certainly feel that my parents always raised us to understand that black and white are equal, that gender and sexual orientation does not describe a person as good or bad–just as is. There are certain aspects of southern tradition that resonate with me, and Reese talks about these at great length. One is food, and so I’d recommend her book just for the great recipes, like for southern fried chicken, ham hock collard greens, mint juleps, country biscuits, and proper cornbread. Oh, and it’s the first time I have found a thorough recipe of applesauce cake that looks like what my Mammaw used to make. I tried getting the recipe from my Aunt Helen, before she died, but Alzheimer’s was starting to kick her butt–and my mom doesn’t quite remember it all either now, as she is getting close to 80, a fact I find so hard to believe. And Reese shows you how to catch a frog by hand (and release it back to the pond) and how to use big hair rollers, a memory that I do not recall as being great. In Reese’s version, you use six large hair rollers and roll your hair up by section and take a drive and roll down the window. I was born with such kinky, curly hair that Mom used to use a lot of smaller rollers, to help control it, and make me sleep in the curlers. I much prefer Reese’s way. She says in the book that there’s a scene in Steel Magnolias that shows this method, and I have watched that movie a million times and love it, because it does remind me so very much of being in big houses in the South getting ready for big events, not really a wedding (that came later after childhood), but sometimes church or getting ready for a big Easter dinner or just going to exciting Chattanooga to Lookout Mountain.
Thanks to Reese Witherspoon, an actress I’ve always admired–from Sweet Home Alabama to Wild–for such a lift and reminder of the goodness of life. These thoughts tie in to the year to come. I guess also, with my writing, I have absolutely gone back and forth between when to continue with my Wild Mountain series and when to continue with my Up the River novel. I am really feeling Up the River being my next project, but I think I need to do a rewrite of it (luckily it’s only about 1/3rd finished). I strongly feel that a good story can be told of life in the South, and I really feel a need to make it involve close family members who drift apart–only, in my version of the story, there is no permanency to that–just some struggles before things are whole again. I need to write this. Of course the parallel part of the plot will be a pipeline break, which will result in the forever changing of a community. I have to admit that I am not really feeling the second part of Wild Mountain right this moment–though am committed to writing it, mainly because it’s a needed transition to the Ireland-bound final part of the trilogy, which I am ready to write. The second book, To the Waters and the Wild, however, reflects my personal struggle with growing up with religion and recognizing its downsides while also telling a story of the beauty of nature and why we have to respect it. I think I’ll just allow the series to move further out while writing Up the River. I really have to do it; it’s about family, it’s about the environment, and it’s about how divisive people and corrupt policies can break what holds us together.
The featured image is a photo near the Cumberland Falls, where the Cumberland River in southeastern Kentucky meanders calmly. My parents honeymooned at Cumberland Falls and returned there on their 25th anniversary, where my father later shared with me a letter he wrote to Mom during that trip, dreaming that they would return again on their 50th anniversary. He died around a year before that anniversary ever happened.