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...]

An American Girl’s Tale

American-girlDave Ramsey, the millionaire evangelical Christian money coach who’s famous for telling his clients they “can’t afford it” and hectoring them to pay their bills in cash, would have thought I had lost my mind.

And, indeed, it is true that I was aflame with that particularly American form of madness which manifests itself as Having to Shop. The day before I had faced some obstacles peculiar to the American professional workplace, nothing that was all that punishing but was disorienting and exhausting enough—work-life balance, blah blah blah—that the only appropriate remedy was to spend money. I took my five-year-old daughter to the American Girl store in Tyson’s Corner Mall.

This was a matter of some urgency: The dolls Marie-Grace and Cécile had “been retired,” and I was in a race to get at least one of them.

Let us pause now to consider the phenomenon of American Girl dolls in general, premium-priced, but not especially fragile or rare dolls that were once noted for their exceptionally and historically detailed accessories. The line of dolls with accompanying books launched way back at the end of the 1980s, long after my own doll years in the more modest era of the patchwork-clad Holly Hobbie. [Read more...]

Our Mother Mary

DormitionToday is the Feast of the Dormition (the “falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. It is the analogue in the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Roman Catholicism, and on balance, the similarities between the two commemorations are greater than their differences: The Dormition is one of the twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox year. The Assumption is a holy day of obligation and, I am told, is superseded only by Easter in its importance for Catholics.

The heart of the feast remains the same for both: the end of Mary’s earthly life of faithfulness, the culmination of her own original yes in her agreement to bear the Son of God in the reception of her sanctified body into heaven. It is believed (contrary to some popular misunderstanding) by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics that Mary experienced a normal, natural death, but received upon her burial the glorified state—reunion of body and soul—that is the ultimate end for which all we faithful pray.

In their aesthetic emphasis, though, the two feasts are utterly different: In all the Roman Catholic portrayals of the event that I have seen, Mary is bright-faced and young—evoking the description of the woman “clothed with the sun” from Revelation. [Read more...]

Everyone Deserves Clean Grout and Starched Linen

Pie Counter (1963), Wayne Thiebaud For my junior high school Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Lesca Black, who taught me how to press every seam once you’d sewed it, and for Dr. Sandra DeJong, who said she thought I might be a feminist, after all.

It all began, I suppose, with the hardbound set of Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks my mother ordered by subscription, lined up on a kitchen shelf between utilitarian metal bookends.

There was one hardbound volume for each European region, and multiple volumes for the regional cuisines of America, each covered in darkly-lit photographs reminiscent of still-life paintings. The volume for France had a picture of a cheese soufflé; the book for Austria (Austria?) had a gingerbread house frosted with royal icing and studded with candies—a Middle American fantasy of an Alpine Christmas.

“Let’s make that!” I always said to the nearby humoring adults, who were willing to let me make a mess in the kitchen but were not otherwise interested in “projects.” [Read more...]

Moving to Stillness

Last Thursday morning I got up, made my son’s lunch, made sure that both children were dressed and fed. My husband had left for work at his news job hours before. I pulled back my long hair, graying at the roots—time for a touch-up—grabbed the keys and the steel mug of coffee, and piled my son and daughter into the car.

At seven forty-five we were rounding the Beltway, the sun an arc in the sky behind us, the radio tuned on Pharrell and Imagine Dragons. I drove twenty-three miles to drop my son off at his camp, dropped off my daughter at Greek Orthodox Vacation Bible School, and then threaded my way through traffic from the Quicken Loans National Golf Championship to the nearest Starbucks, where I wrote a grant proposal asking for $300,000. I was under the gun, because I had to pick up my daughter at noon.

By late afternoon, though, I was miles away and all alone, at least as alone as one can get on the 4:06 p.m. Metroliner to New York Penn Station. I resigned myself to the spotty Wi-Fi. The train bore forward along its rusted, hundred-year-old tracks, curving through the row-house blocks and abandoned factories of Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, along the Atlantic seaboard and then into New Jersey. [Read more...]


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