In Memoriam

roadside-memorialIf you live long enough in a place, people will start to die there, but the phenomenon of time’s passage is often framed more romantically. Consider the lines of the classic Beatles song (emphasis mine):

There are places I remember…
Some have gone and some remain
All these
places have their moments
with lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all.

I’m not immune to this tendency myself. I am a Southerner, after all, and a Mississippian, a member of the tribe for whom the phrase “a sense of place” is endlessly and (often) sententiously invoked.

A real joke: How many Southerners does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Three. One to call the yardman, one to mix the martinis, and one to talk about how lovely the old one was. [Read more...]

Elsa Blue and Frozen Power

ElsaFrozenFor Chad Thomas Johnston

Along with Kermit green, Barbie pink and—Lord have mercy—SpongeBob yellow, we can now officially add another color to the commercial childhood color spectrum:

Elsa blue.

Not the uninspiring medium light-blue of the golden-haired Disney Cinderella, the color of hard-sided Samsonite suitcases and redolent of 1950s animation, but a far more rarified shade, mixed with white and the tiniest drop of yellow-gold. A color that is just a step closer to Tiffany blue, and I bet you anything that this is not a coincidence.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, and have been preoccupied with your life of craft beers and reading Teodor Adorno, “Elsa blue” is the chief signifier and synecdoche of the 2014 animated film Frozen that recounts the story of two orphaned princesses in the Norwegian-inspired kingdom of Arendelle, the older of whom—the now-Queen Elsa—has the lethal and hidden power to create snow and ice.

[Read more...]

Apocatastasis at the Essex

bostonessex-400x600“You have to choose the places you don’t walk away from.” —Joan Didion

This one’s for Sarinah Viya Kalb, who was there. With love.

And so the season of death returns: the leaves now in their last burst of red and gold before starting their descent, and at night, sometimes, a stiff wind scuttling down my hilltop street. From now until Easter—Pascha, as we Orthodox have it, signifying both Passover and passage—is the evocative time of the year for me, and I’ve written about it on “Good Letters” so many times before that I’m afraid I’ve become an annual broken record. (But Mommy, Anna Maria asks, What is a record?)

I want to tell you about a religious experience I had, in this season, about thirty years ago.

I say “religious” in contradistinction to the more acceptable, these days, designation of “spiritual.” (More than one friend of mine and I have joked about our desire to print Café Press T-shirts that avow that we are “Religious But Not Spiritual.”)

[Read more...]

Holding the Blade of Sacrifice

isaacI had fallen asleep thinking about the Sacrifice of Isaac: The account, given in Genesis, in which patriarch Abraham is called by God to venture to Mt. Moriah, and sacrifice his young and beloved son—the son born to him and Sarah in old age, for whom he had longed for decades. And as the Genesis narrative relates, at the very moment Abraham has steeled himself to bear the knife, a ram appears “in a thicket,” and Isaac is saved, and the ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place.

I’d gone to bed mulling over what I was going to write in the very post you are reading now. At that point, I intended to focus on how the compact of parenthood has seemed to expand since I was a child: Whereas my older siblings and I had been more or less “thrown” into the world to survive by our own devices, young people today, middle-class and above, seem so tethered to their parents—by cell phones, by cars that parents pay the insurance on well into their children’s twenties, by the occasional checks for thousands of dollars meted out for Christmas and mortgages for sons and daughters closing in on forty.

Mostly, I’m just envious.

[Read more...]

Living My Family’s Legacy

plantationThe sins of the fathers may indeed be visited upon the children, and upon the children’s children, until the third and the fourth generation, but there is more to inherit than that.

My grandmother, Irene, whom I grew up calling “Big Mama” was born 1902 on Dunbarton Plantation (or was it Stonewall?) in Holmes County, Mississippi, the eldest of eight daughters of a not-rich cotton planter—whom, I have been told by elders outside the family, was regarded as somehow not quite socially acceptable. His wife, my great-grandmother, was born into one of “good” families of the Delta, and had married, as they said back then and maybe still do, “down.”

And whatever constituted that judgment, my grandmother still bore the tender sting of it by the time I came on the scene, some seventy years later. My grandmother attended a couple of years at a Methodist college, worked at a doctor’s office, and then at twenty-one, after an earnest lunchtime courtship in downtown Jackson’s Smith Park, she married my grandfather, a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railroad who left school after the eighth grade.

The decade afterward was a haze of babies being born: all were girls. My mother Gloria was designated to be the “boy,” although my aunt Billie, the change-of-life baby born later in 1939, got my grandfather’s name. The family moved from one rented house to another—including a move from the Delta after the Great Flood of 1927—until they finally landed in Canton, Mississippi, and stayed. [Read more...]


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