The Gold Trail Motor Lodge (Little Shit in Gold Country)

Taking a break from scholarly work (I take an amazing number of breaks from it; gotta work on that), I decided to revisit my memoir-in-progress, the Little Shit Chronicles. This episode takes place nearer to the end of the cross-country trip; we were actually pretty close to our destination of Sacramento, but for reasons I’ve never known (and can only imagine as being not good), we spent some long, boring days at the Gold Trail Motor Lodge on Highway 50 in California. It’s only 37.9 miles from the house we were to be moving into. That’s not a typo, either. It’s 37.9 miles.

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The Gold Trail Motor Lodge still exists, and still looks just the same. JUST THE SAME. The Mother Lode Motel is real and still exists, too. In fact, you have to check in at the Mother Lode to stay at the Gold Trail.

Highway 50 is very much busier than it was 45 years ago, and the town of Placerville is a bit more bustling.

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The Gold Trail Motor Lodge, Placerville

 

 

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Downtown Placerville in 1969.
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Downtown Placerville, today.

I would not undertake the 2.7 mile walk along the highway from the motel into town that we took then. We shouldn’t have taken it then, but it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it would be now. But we were young, bored, and desperate. And hungry. My teenaged brother needed food. We would get him food.

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Don’t misundertand me. We weren’t that kind of hungry. Not the poor, starving childrren you see in the news, children of Appalachia or inner city food deserts. We were spoiled middle-class suburban kids who felt like we’d been deprived of a meal, and we had some money in our pockets. We had been eating at restaurants, some very nice ones, for 2 weeks and our expectations were of 3 solid meals a day. At the Gold Trail Motor Lodge, we relied a little too much on vending machine potato chips and Cokes. Fun at first, but eventually you need something else.

 

In 1972, I didn’t know much about Italian food, or American-style Italian food, except for spaghetti and lasagna and pizza. Minestrone and spumoni sounded very exotic and a little scary. But by this point, I’d already accidentally ordered and then eaten escargots in New Orleans, so a little soup wasn’t going to get in my way.

 

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

The Gold Trail Motor Lodge is right on the side of Highway 50. I’m not sure that anyone else is staying here but us. We are on our third day here. There is nothing to do. At least the equally plain and ugly Mother Lode Motel, next down the highway, lets us use the pool. The three of us sit in the water and spend the change we collected in Las Vegas in the vending machines, sipping cold sodas and eating potato chips while the hot sun beats down on us. An occasional car roars down the road that we can see through the chain link fence.

            Steve has taken to studying the road atlas.

            “It’s only 45 miles from Placerville to Sacramento,” he points out gloomily.

            We hardly see Mom and Van.

            “How far is it into town?” asks Ellen as she drags her hand through the blue water. I can’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses.

            Steve uses his fingers as a ruler and tries to figure out where we are on the red line that is the highway in the atlas. “I think it’s about 3 miles.”

            “We’ve walked that far before, going into Emory Village to Horton’s,” Ellen reminds us of the many treks to our favorite dime store and soda fountain. Will I ever see Horton’s again?

            “But there are sidewalks and shade trees there. It’s not safe to walk on the side of the highway,” I say nervously.

            “I could try to get the keys to the car,” Steve says. I can’t tell if he is joking. Ellen can’t drive; she’s afraid to take the drivers’ test to get her license. Steve is only 14, but he drives sometimes. Van lets him now and then when he’s tired or wants to smoke and drink without worrying about keeping his eyes on the road. I think Steve is the better driver.

            “I’m getting really tired of potato chips and Cokes. There has to be a place to eat in Placerville. Or a grocery store. We’ll walk single file and be really careful.”

            In my head I see us straggling down the busy highway, cars zooming past and the sun blazing down and me desperate to keep up with the others. Then my stomach growls thinking of a cafe with real food and drinks with ice.

            “The television doesn’t work,” adds Steve. “I’m sick of this place.”

We go to our room, put on the sneakers none of us have worn for 3 days, and set off down Highway 50, the sun in our eyes. Ellen leads the way, with me in the middle so I will feel safer, and Steve bringing up the rear, singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

            At about 90 bottles, Ellen turns around. “Oh, shut up.”

            “I wish Cathy was here. She knows all the good songs.”

           Some summer nights, we would all pile in the car, even the dog Tripp, and Mom would start driving and the game was to get her lost. “Turn left here!” Cathy would start the sing-alongs. By the Light of the Silvery Moon, with extra made up choruses, Sipping Cider through a Straw, The Chicken Song. Knowing how much my mother hates to drive, I really don’t understand why she was willing to play this game with us. And we never got lost, how was that?

            We can’t get lost on this outing; the motel is on the side of Highway 50 and it looks like whatever there is in Placerville is right on the highway too. Sweat trickles down between my shoulder blades and my braid feels really hot on the back of my neck. Ellen must be desperate to get out; she hates to do anything that involves dust or sweat.

            It’s hard to talk with the cars roaring past so we don’t for a while. After what seems like hours, we finally get to town. I see a lot of bars. Maybe we’ll find Mom and Van if we go in, but then, we don’t really want to find them.

            “Just down there.” Ellen points to a little side street and the neon lights of an Italian restaurant. We trudge forward, no longer in single file. It’s cool and dark and smells of garlic inside the restaurant. An older woman, wearing all black and a big black apron, comes over to us, concern on her face.

            “The 3 of you are alone?” she asks.

            “Oh, our mom is down the street. She sent us to get some dinner.” Ellen acts like we’ve been doing this all of our lives, not just the last few weeks. “We have money.”

            “Of course. This way.” The woman takes us to a scarred old wooden table, and comes back with ice waters and menus. As I sit down, I can feel the muscles in my legs twitching from the long walk.

            There are several pasta dishes; we call it macaroni at home. A choice of salad or something called minestrone. Ellen says it’s a soup. Dessert and coffee are included in the prices. Another thing I’ve never heard of, spumoni. Ellen doesn’t know what that one is.

            The woman I think of as Mama comes to take our order. She looks at me first. I always want to go last because I’ve never made up my mind, but she looks so worried.

            “Min…min…the soup,” I stutter.

            “The minestrone. Good. You’ll like it. And?”

            “Lasagna.” At least I know what that is. “Can I have iced tea instead of coffee?” I’ve learned to add the “iced”; otherwise I’ll get hot tea out here. In Georgia, tea always means on ice. If you want it hot, you say “hot tea”. It’s 100 degrees outside; why would I want hot tea?

            “Of course. And I’ll think you’ll like the spumoni for dessert. It’s an ice cream.”

            “Okay,” I say, relieved not to have make that decision.

            As we wait for the food, Steve brings up again that Sacramento isn’t that far away, so why aren’t we just going there?

            “I have a flight to catch in a few days,” Ellen reminds us. I don’t want to think about her leaving. Or, I don’t want to think about her not taking me with her.

            “The sooner we get there and find a house, the sooner Cathy can send Tripp out to us. “I wish she could have come in the car.” Steve reminds me of how much I miss the pets.

            “Don’t count on it,” says Ellen. “Van took all the other animals to the pound; he might not send Cathy the money for Tripp’s flight out. And you know how Cathy is about the dog. She might refuse to send her.”

            Tripp joined the family before I was born. The story is that Cathy was getting tired of asking for a dog and instead getting a new little brother or sister. So Daddy took her to a neighbor’s house, where they were giving away black lab/Collie mix puppies. All of the other puppies were black and playful, but there was one brown and white one smaller than the others. Cathy picked her up and the pup licked her face and that was that. I was born about a year later, so Tripp is like one of my big sisters. When Mom is calling us in, she calls the names in order, Cathy, Ellen, Steve, Tripp, Gen!”

            Tripp turned out to be epileptic. We’ve learned what to do when she has a seizure. What if she has one in her kennel on the plane? I miss her, but maybe she’d better stay with Cathy. We also had a younger dog, an Airedale named Sunshine, and three cats: Whiskers, the dignified, older long-hair orange tabby; Luke (previously Lulu), the short-hair orange tabby who is not very smart; and Christy, the youngest cat, who had the 4 kittens that all died earlier in the summer. One day I came home and only Tripp was left. “Van took them all to the pound,” Steve informed me gloomily. “He said we can’t take them to California.” I guess even Van isn’t mean enough to send an almost 12-year old epileptic dog to the pound.

            Mama brings 3 little silver dishes of spumoni. It’s not like my favorite ice cream, mint chocolate chip, or the vanilla that Mom swirls coffee powder into. It’s filled with fruits and nuts, and is a pinkish/brownish color. It melts quickly, so I spoon it up as fast as I can.

            Ellen pays the check. “Time to head back up the highway before it gets dark.”

            “Do you think we will get in trouble?” I ask, the worrier of the family even if I am the youngest.

            “I bet they don’t even know we’re gone,” says Steve. He’s right, as usual.

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As usual, my apologies to my siblings for any exaggerations, embellishments, or misremembering.

Now, back to my scholarly work, already and always in progress.

Peace and hugs.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water (A Very Long Bridge)

I’m in a memoir mood today, so let’s spin the flashback wheel to the year 1972!

It’s late July, maybe early August. Richard Nixon is president and Watergate is just emerging as a scandal.

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Gasoline averages 55 cents a gallon. The Munich Olympic terrorist attack has yet to happen (that will be in September). The average yearly income is $11,800 and the average cost of a new house is $27,550.

Fashion is interesting and colorful.

 

Food is weird.

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David Bowie introduces his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.

ABBA is formed.

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Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published.

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The top movie was The Godfather. M*A*S*H is a hit television show, although I am a Mary Tyler Moore Show girl.

 

Roberta Flack’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is the top song of the year, American Pie by Don McLean is number 3, and it is the song that I like better. We all like singing along to Harry Nilsson’s Coconut Song.

 

A portion of my family is on an extended one-way cross-country trip from Georgia to California.

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I am the youngest. My mother, a widow with 4 children, has just married her second husband, Van, a twice-divorced alcoholic who doesn’t like children. Actually, he pretty much hates everything as far as I, at age almost 11, can tell. Cathy, our oldest sister, is not on the trip; she is in Georgia with her husband and new baby. I miss them dreadfully. Our family dog, Tripp, will be flown out later to join us in California. I also miss her dreadfully. Van took the 3 cats (Whiskers, Luke, and Christy) and the other dog, goofy  Sunshine, to the pound. Somehow he spared Tripp, who is a year older than I am and has been around my entire life. She has periodic seizures; maybe even a seemingly heartless guy like Van knows you don’t take a senior dog with seizures away from her family.

This excerpt from the Little Shit memoir (Little Shit is the nickname I obtained that summer) is early in the trip, when are headed from Laurel, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.

To do this, we cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, an almost 24 mile long bridge that is the world’s longest span over water. That is very long, especially when you are 10, and crammed in a car with two cranky siblings and two smoking adults, no air conditioning, and no end in sight to this miserable summer. Fun times!

Apologies to my sister Ellen for my somewhat exaggerated depiction of her moodiness and carsickness. But she did miss her boyfriend and she really hated that bridge!

[Text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

            We have a quiet breakfast at the Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi. Ellen spent the previous night in our room in tears after saying goodbye to her boyfriend in Birmingham. It’s not like she’s never going to see him again. She’ll be back in Atlanta to finish high school soon enough, and he will be there for his second year at Emory. But she is inconsolable, refusing to eat dinner. I love the orange and turquoise theme but Ellen says it’s tacky. She consents to breakfast, but glares at Van between deep sighs. She fiddles with a cup of coffee, the weight of the world on her 16-year old shoulders. I go for the little boxes of cereal that you split open and pour the milk right in, bypassing the bowl. The snap, crackle and pop is the only noise at the table beside the sighs and the clinking of coffee cups on saucers.

            “I can’t wait to see New Orleans,” Mom finally offers as conversation.

          Steve mutters, “I can,” and Ellen just rolls her eyes.

            We load the bags back onto the luggage rack. Steve crawls to the wayback, flashing me his “beat you” grin. I settle in beside Ellen in the back seat. At least I have my book if I can’t have my favorite spot.

            “How can you read in the car?” Ellen looks at me like I’m from another planet. It’s as good a place to read as any.

            Van has decreed that Mom is not going to drive on this trip, which is fine with her, and gets behind the wheel. She empties out the overflowing ashtray and settles in.

            “We’ll be going over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It’s the world’s longest bridge over water,” Van announces, like he’s reading from a travel brochure.

            Uh oh. He doesn’t know yet that Ellen can get really carsick on bridges and curvy roads. I love Ellen, but I don’t want to be sitting next to her over that bridge.

            “Can we have the radio for a while?” Ellen asks.

            So far Van has been solidly anti-radio.

            “If I hear that damned “lime in the coconut” song one more time, I’m going to spit, ” he says.

            Ellen loves Carly Simon and Carole King but they don’t impress Van either. None of us want to listen to what Steve likes, bands with weird names like Jethro Tull, and of course the Allman Brothers, Georgia boys who Ellen’s boyfriend used to listen to before they were famous when they would play for free in Piedmont Park. So we settle for country music. Mom tries to get us to sing along like we used to, but Cathy was always the leader then and Ellen isn’t up to taking her place at the moment.

            The bridge appears to be endless and hovers uncomfortably close to the water. I’m not afraid of bridges or heights, but the idea of Van swerving the overloaded station wagon off the bridge when he gets cigarette ashes on his pants or spills his drink makes me nervous. Van also probably doesn’t know that I can’t swim.

            “My goodness, look at that!” exclaims Mom. It really is quite a sight, with no end on the horizon. Ellen clutches at my arm. I let her, even though I am not sure how it comforts her at all.

            “You lie down; I’ll scoot over closer to the door,” I offer. The window is open for fresh air. If we go over, is it better for it to be up or down?

             In my mind I see the swerve of the overloaded station wagon and it, with the 5 of us, dropping like a giant cannonball into the water. Do station wagons float? We have the windows cracked open all the time because of the cigarette smoke and the lack of air conditioning. Now I wonder, would it be better to have the windows tightly shut in the event of a water landing? I grab the crank and start turning it, the cool smooth metal feeling like my last chance to avoid a watery grave. I practice rolling the window up and down to see how fast I can do it if called on in an emergency.

            “What the hell are you doing,” Van demands, his mouth pursed around his cigarette and looking at me in the rear view mirror.

            I know better than to answer the question. I stop cranking the handle and slide down in the seat so I can’t see all of the beautiful blue, deadly water out there. But it’s much too hot to burrow, and Ellen is taking up more than her share of the space as she lies on her side and closes her eyes, trying to stem the carsickness. Steve is looking out the wayback at the cars behind us, and gazing at the water as it speeds away from him rather than toward him.

            “Scoot over,” I whisper as I crawl over the seat back into the wayback with him. “Ellen’s going to puke on me!”

            He swats at me, “Go away.”

            “Mom!” I yell toward the front.

            “Mom! Steve won’t let me in the back. Tell him to move over.” I am halfway over the back seat, head and shoulders in the wayback and the rest of me trying to catch up. Ellen, sweaty and clammy with carsickness, is swatting me away with a surprisingly strong hand from one side and Steve from the other. I hiss at Steve, “Let me in, she’s going to puke on me.”

            “Dammit, Nancy,” snarls Van. “I am not pulling over on this bridge. Control your children.” Mom is obliviously singing with Donna Fargo that she’s the happiest girl in the whole USA. 

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Was my mother really oblivious? I honestly don’t know, but it seemed so at the time. And no, in 1972 not a lot of people bothered with seat belts. I climbed around in the car. Dear younger readers, cars did not have electric windows in the old days. You had to crank them. I can’t say for sure there was a Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi, but I know we stayed at one somewhere along the way.

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We did love the Coconut Song. You know the one, “put the lime in the coconut, you know you’ll feel better…

 

Here I am, 45 years later, on a hot day in California in August, drinking my favorite new icy drink, coconut water with lime. It does make me feel better!

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Cheers!

Literary Pets (Cats Who Write Murder Mysteries)

There is a real cat credited as a writer of murder mysteries–Sneaky Pie Brown, who pens the Mrs. Murphy mysteries with her human, Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is a crime-solving cat who works with a Corgi partner, in case you thought she was a human Miss Marple type.

Rita Mae Brown
Sneaky Pie Brown with Rita Mae Brown.

I think cats would make natural murder mystery writers. There always seems to be an implied “I could kill you but I won’t” message underlying the looks many cats give us humans, and sometimes dogs, and sometimes other cats.

You know this cat is not thinking good thoughts about you.

There is a book about this, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

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Maybe that’s what started me on playing the game, what author would that animal be? Or maybe it was that time I went to a reading and book signing by the author T. C. Boyle and thought he looked like a Borzoi. It turns out that Boyle, author of one of my favorite books, The Tortilla Curtain, is actually partial to the dreadlocked Puli, which is pretty cool.

 

Puli dogs
Puli dogs

Tortilla

 

I’ve only done this with dogs and cats so far, but I am sure you can play it with any type of animal if you can match up their personality, looks, and likely literary style with a human author.

My own companion animals were pretty easy to match up.

Sara, my 19-year old brown tabby cat, would clearly be one of the classic older ladies of the English murder mystery genre. Perhaps Agatha Christie, but I think really of a writer who had a bit more edge, like Ruth Rendell. Much darker things happen in Rendell’s books than Christie’s, and even thought Sara is an affectionate cat, she is a cat, and was also quite a hunter in her day.

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Dame Agatha Christie, creator of the aforementioned Miss Marple.
Ruth Rendell
Dame Ruth Rendell, author of dark mysteries under her own name, and psychological thrillers under the name Barbara Vine.

Misty, our 6-year old Turkish Angora who was rescued from kitty death row, where she was placed for having a personality disorder that made her “unadoptable”, would be a perfect Gillian Flynn,  author of the disturbing books Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects. Misty is beautiful, but beware what lurks in that brain. I call her the Ferocious Beauty for good reason!

Scary, each and every one of them.

Marble, the new kid on the block, is hip and eccentric and a little wild, so I am picking Dave Eggers for him. Maybe Eggers, perhaps best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is a dog guy. I don’t know, but Marble would be a good hipster author who can be funny and profound and will always do things a little differently. And sometimes follows you around like a dog.

And then there is Einstein. Einstein is not named for his staggering genius, but for his unruly fur. I think he should be a humorist, and I know Dave Barry likes dogs because he has written about them frequently. And his bangs hang in his face, like Einstein’s.

Of course, I have to delve into memories of pets past as well. Our dearly beloved Ben, the classic orange tabby with a heart of gold, would be Calvin Trillin, winner of the 2013 Thurber Prize for American Humor. He’s a classic himself.

Then there is the dynamic dog duo, Bingo and Sadie. Bingo was a ham, always taking credit for Sadie’s work. She was a lovable free-spirit.  If we took them to the beach and threw sticks in the water, Sadie would swim out to retrieve them, but as soon as she got to shore, Bingo would grab them from her and run over all proud for having supposedly retrieved them himself. Obviously, to me, they are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Bingo, left, with Sadie.
F. Scott with Zelda.

I can go on like this for hours. Now I’ve started matching up animals at the shelter with their literary doppelgängers.

When I first saw Mordecai the mastiff, his stateliness made me think of Charles Dickens, the venerable author of so many icons of English literature. But I have revised my opinion lately to thinking he is really John Steinbeck, the venerable author of so many icons of American literature. Steinbeck, by the way, wrote a lovely book about his Standard Poodle Charley.

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Mordecai

When I saw scrappy little dachshund mix Facebook, I immediately thought of Alexander McCall Smith, prolific author of the series The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, The Sunday Philosophy Club, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and Scotland Street. He has an infectious personality and his books are light and fun.

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I picked David Foster Wallace for Joey, mostly because for some reason he just looks like he’d write some of my favorite essays like Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Joey will not follow in DFW’s footsteps in terms of early, self-inflicted death. Joey will live to be a grumpy old man cat with a sense of humor.

Joey

 

 

 

I’ll just do one more. Like I said, I could do this for hours. I read a lot, and I see a lot of animals in the course of my day.

Another of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I don’t know why it took me a little while to realize she would be my recent foster cat Merida. There is a sweetness to Tyler’s books, along with a faint melancholy, and always a theme of family and relationships. Merida is a sweetheart, had a rough start in life, is looking for her forever family, and could easily be the central character in a Tyler book if Tyler wrote books about cats.

Maybe some day I’ll actually write and publish a book. I hope so. I have a great author photo ready to go–I look serious and moody.

And then maybe someone will pair me up with my animal doppelgänger. I’m hoping for a sleek, dignified beauty, like an Irish Setter.

But I won’t be surprised if it is a roly poly kitten, either.

Meow!

Galveston, Oh Galveston

Today we continue on the adventures of Little Shit, aka me. When we drove cross country in the summer of 1972, the routine was that we would get to a motel or hotel (usually a motel) and check into two rooms, Mom and Van in one, the three of us kids in the other. Ellen and I would share a bed if they were big enough, or there’d be a roll-away bed brought in for me. I’m sure brother Steve didn’t love sharing rooms with his sisters, but we usually didn’t spend much time in the rooms anyway.

After an adventurous day and night in New Orleans, we went on to Galveston, Texas. I only knew of Galveston from the Glen Campbell song of 1969. (Rest in Peace, Mr. Campbell.)

 

I did not have a good time in Galveston. When you read the memoir excerpt below, you will wonder if, one, my mother really left me alone in the hotel while they all went out to dinner. Yes, she did. It didn’t occur to any of us then that it wasn’t safe to do so. Two, did room service really take an order and deliver to a 10 year old kid? Yes. And I enjoyed the experience immensely! [Warning to my vegan friends; when I was 10 I was not a vegan; there will be animal products consumed in this story.]

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Galveston 1972
Galveston beach in 1972, photo by Blair Pittman.

I bring up Audie Murphy (1925-1971) in the story. He was a real World War II hero, the most decorated hero of the war, who then went on to be an actor. He had already been killed in a plane crash by the time of the story, but I had no idea. He just looked like a nice guy. I found out later that he refused to do ads for cigarettes or alcohol. He sounds like the total opposite of my mother’s second husband, who was never without a drink and a cigarette. My instincts at 10 weren’t too bad.

 

I’ve figured out from images that it was the Flagship Hotel where we stayed. It was built in 1965 on Galveston’s Pleasure Pier, and severely damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008. It was demolished in 2009.

 

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

We are staying in a big hotel this time, instead of a motel. It’s right on the beach, too, and we are up pretty high. It’s fun to go out on our balcony and look down at the water. I haven’t ever really spent much time at a beach before.

We visited Mimi and Granddaddy in San Diego last summer and they took us to the beach. I had to wear that hand-me-down yellow bathing suit that was Cathy’s or Ellen’s (or Cathy’s and then Ellen’s). As usually, I got sunburned. I was embarrassed that I can’t swim, but I just went in up to my knees and splashed around. I’d rather collect seashells or build sandcastles anyway.

This beach looks kind of dirty, but I don’t care. At least we are out of the hot car and the clouds of cigarette smoke, and we can get away from Mom and Van for a while. But Mom insists that we all eat lunch first, so we trudge into the hotel restaurant. Van is weirdly all smiles, and that scares me. He announces that he’s made appointments for Mom, Ellen, and me to go to the hotel beauty salon for haircuts and manicures. Mom and Ellen look happy, but I feel a knot in my stomach. He looks at us all expectantly. Mom says, “Oh, thank you! Girls?” Ellen says thank you. They all look at me.

“No, thank you,” I say, knowing it’s the wrong answer but unable to say anything else. I don’t want to go. I can tell by the look on Van’s face that I am in big trouble again.

“You’re going. And then we are all going out for a nice dinner tonight.”

“No.” I can be stubborn. I am happy with my long wavy hair. My nails are short and stubby and bitten down. A manicure would be silly. And I’d rather be at the beach.

Are they all mad at me? I guess it would be easier to just go along, but I’m in a mood now and there’s no giving in. We go through a few rounds of “Yes you will” followed by “No I won’t.” We all head up to our rooms, Ellen and Mom to get ready for their salon appointments. I’m told I can go down to the beach with Steve, but when they all go to dinner, I have to stay in the hotel room.

That’s my punishment? To get to stay in the nice big room, with 2 big beds, and watch television instead of putting on my dress-up dress with the hated white knee socks and patent leather shoes, and sitting for hours in a smoky restaurant waiting for Mom and Van to decide we can leave? Cool!

I go down to the beach with Steve, but he says there are jellyfish and I get a little scared.     I dig in the sand and the afternoon goes by.

Everyone else gets ready to go to the fancy restaurant that Van’s picked out. As they all leave, Van looks around and says “Thank you” to Mom, Ellen, and Steve. He looks at me and says “No, thank you” with a mean look, and they head to the elevator.

Finally, I have the room to myself! I turn on the television but there’s nothing much on. A World War II movie with Audie Murphy. I go out on the balcony and watch the water below. I take off my favorite shoes, the red Keds that I have to get in the boys’ section since my feet are wider than a “normal” girl, and consider throwing them off the balcony. I think, “That’ll show them.” Show them what? I love those shoes, so I toss them to safety back into the room.

My stomach growls. I think my punishment is supposed to include not having any dinner, but no one said that, so I look at the room service menu. Why shouldn’t I call for food? Van didn’t say not to, so I’m not disobeying anyone.

I pick the most expensive thing on the menu—filet mignon. I know what that is from the other restaurants we’ve been to. It comes with a baked potato. Yum! And a salad, which is okay. I like salad, especially with a creamy dressing. I think I should order a glass of milk, which is what Mom would make me drink.

I hate drinking milk. It’s gross. It always makes me think of the time I had lunch with a kid down the street. I can’t remember his name, but his mother made cheese sandwiches and poured us glasses of milk. I swear I saw that kid spit in my milk, so I refused to drink it. She was unhappy with me, and I think I got fussed at for it by Mom. Ever since then, I can’t stand the idea of drinking milk.

I call in my order, with a Coke instead of the milk. Surprisingly, no one tells me I am too little or in trouble or anything else. My food will be right up. And it is. I sit at the little wheeled table and turn the Audie Murphy movie back on. The sliding glass door is open, and I can hear the sound of the ocean. The baked potato with sour cream and chives is delicious.

At some point, I give up on finishing the food and get in one of the beds to watch the movie. I can tell Audie Murphy is the hero, but that’s about it. I like this Audie Murphy guy. He looks nice. Why couldn’t Mom have married somebody like him? He’d never call me Little Shit. He’d call me his little princess and bring me a kitten. He’d never tell me I’m chubby or make me wear white knee socks. He’d come down to the beach and let me bury him in the sand and then we’d look for sand dollars. We’d have a car with an air conditioner. We’d go back home.

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In hindsight, it might not have been so bad to go to the salon. It was the idea of being made to go and being expected to say thank you for something I didn’t want that set me off. I was a good Southern girl, raised to say “please” and “thank you” and “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”. But something got into me that day in Galveston. And in an odd way, I am proud of my Little Shit self for it. You go, girl!

 

 

For my big brother (love you, Steve)

I doubt my brother Steve reads my blog. He’s not a social media kind of guy. He lives almost 3,000 miles away in North Carolina; I live in California. We are 4 years apart. He is my sibling closest to me in age, and the one with whom I share the most memories of our lives after our mother married her second husband, Van. We went through a lot together in the 1970s. But time and life have a way of distancing people from those kind of bonds. He is a man of faith, conservative of politics. I am a woman of confused thoughts, led by my heart and a desire for kindness. We don’t talk about religion or politics at family gatherings, but family gatherings are very rare in any case. He keeps more in touch with our sister Ellen, the glue of the family, so to speak, who tries her best to keep us all from drifting too far apart. The last time I saw my brother was after our sister Cathy’s husband Ralph passed away, much too young. I don’t think we spoke much except to tell our favorite Ralph stories.

Steve was my protector during the Van years. Dubbed by Van as Little Shit, I was always in trouble for some imagined offense or slight. I was honestly a well-behaved kid, good in school, and mostly quietly in my room reading or drawing. But Van saw the worst in me. I’ll never forget Van going ballistic over something I’d done (and really it would have been something minor, like not closing the screen of the sliding glass door all of the way) and chasing me through the house with a two-by-four. It was the summer of 1973, and we had just moved to Gardnerville, Nevada. I was almost 12, Steve almost 16. He was more than a foot taller than me, quick and wiry. I was neither of those things. He got the piece of lumber away from Van and helped me get to my room, where I could lock the door. I needed my brother, and he kept an eye on me.

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With my brother, either 1962 or 1963.

In 1972, on our drive from Georgia to California, my brother, in my memories, is endlessly enjoying all you can eat breakfast buffets. There is the time he locked me out of the car in the New Mexico desert, but even that in its way is a fond memory.

My absolute favorite memory of my brother on that trip is at a fine dining restaurant at the Sheraton resort in Tucson, Arizona. Mom and Van would typically disappear for a few days after we checked into whatever town’s hotel/motel, leaving Ellen, Steve, and me on our own for the most part. We spent 2 or 3 days in Tucson, the 3 of us floating in the swimming pool and seriously out of our element. The Arizona desert in summer is a vastly different place than the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

 

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Arizona dessert
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Georgia roads

 

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Me, upside down, and Steve,, in the Georgia countryside in 1972.

Van must have been in a good humor and slipped someone at the hotel restaurant a lot of money, arranging for “the kids” to spend an evening in the restaurant, ordering whatever we wanted and playing at being grown-ups. It’s actually one of my very favorite memories of my brother.

We wore our best clothes. We were shown to a nice table. The maître d’ treated us with the utmost respect, but was probably laughing inside. We were brought amuse-bouche, in this case little stuffed grape leaves. It all seemed so over the top to me at 10 years old. Steve ordered everything that could be made table-side and preferably set on fire. Whenever I see Crêpes Suzette on a menu, I smile and think of my sweet brother.

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This is a  short, unfinished, and very rough bit from the Little Shit memoir-in-progress. But I wanted to post it today because I’ve been thinking of you, Steve.

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

“You’ll get us in trouble. It’s too expensive!”

            Steve looks over the top of the menu at me. “He told the maître d’ to give us anything we wanted.”

            I look to Ellen but she smiles and shrugs. She’s enjoying having our brother act like a big-shot man of the family.

            “And he put me in charge.”

            The waiter approaches, turning to Steve, ready to take our dinner order.

            “We’ll have the Caesar Salad and Steak Diane for three.” His voice seems deeper as he gives the order.

            “Very well, sir.” The waiter walks away.

            I shift in my chair and pull up my white knee socks. “It’s really expensive! He’ll get mad!”

            “He’s never going to look at the bill. It’ll just be part of the room charges.” He signals the waiter. “Could you bring another round of drinks, please?”

            “Two Shirley Temples and a Roy Rogers, right away.”

            I look down at the menu for what Steve’s ordered. Table-side service—I’ve never seen such a thing before, and the prices are so high!

            The waiter brings the drinks and I take what I think is a ladylike sip of the pink drink through the straw.

            “What if he does look at the bill this time?” I don’t know if I can eat with the knot I feel in my stomach.

            Steve counters, “What if he does? It’s Mom’s money.”

            He nods approvingly as the maître d’ wheels the table over and begins assembling the Caesar salads.

            “You don’t like dressed salads or half the things in Steak Diane,” I point out.

            “Maybe I’ll like it the way they make it here,” he counters.

            Eyeing the menu again, he looks to the maître d’ again and says, “And for dessert, we’ll have the Crêpes Suzette.”

half a Gen
Half a Genevieve, Ellen, Steve, Mom and a complete stranger at the Grand Canyon in 1972. Yes, Van deliberately left me out when he took the photo.

 

After a few days of floating in the pool in Tucson, I had the worst sunburn in recorded history, huge blisters on my back that will color my memories of our next stop, the Grand Canyon.

Steve, whatever the times bring or however different our paths through lives are, you are always my big brother and I love you.

Peace and hugs.

 

 

 

A Wonder of Women (or, Confessions of a Girl Scout Dropout)

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My latest adventure centered on spending 2 days with these delightful women. 

For most of my life, I considered myself to be an anti-social loner, not a team player, prefering to avoid group situations at all possible costs. My mother made me join the Brownies, which was mostly okay. We had snacks and did arts and crafts and sang silly songs. I could deal with that, and if I immersed myself in the arts and crafts I could avoid the other girls and more importantly, the troop leader. She scared the life out of me. Then came Girl Scouts. Uh oh. I was clearly not Girl Scout material. Girl Scouts are expected to interact in the world, earning badges for awesome deeds and selling overpriced cookies to people who really don’t need or want them. And go camping. Hell no. I don’t do camping.

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If there was a badge in cat holding, I could’ve earned that one. And color coordinating outfits.

I pretended to go to Girl Scouts, showing up at the spot in front of the school where the car pool mom picked us up so as to be seen by the other girls. Then I’d go hide somewhere until the coast was clear, play on the school playground until it was time to go home, and then walk home, pretending when I got there that I’d had a great time. I didn’t get away with it for long. But my mother was understanding and let me leave the scouts. I was free! Free to spend my time with my books and my cats and my arts and crafts projects! Happy girl!

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I grew up. I was lonely, but still convinced I was not a people person. I sat at home alone a lot, drinking too much in front of Food Network shows.

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I needed a troup, a community, a network, I just didn’t know that’s what I needed. It was suggested that I needed to get out of the house and challenge myself. What?! But I tried. I signed up for cooking classes, mosaic making classes, knitting classes. But I didn’t make friends or try to fit in. It wasn’t because the women (yes, it was all women in these groups) didn’t try to befriend me. I resisted them, cultivating my misunderstood loner status.

But life has a way of kicking us in our butts when we need it. I needed it. I got my butt kicked. I got help. And I discovered that I am a nice person who thrives among friends and enjoys the company of others. Who knew?!

Call me a late bloomer if you will.

late bloomer

It started with volunteering at an animal shelter, where I started to make friends and find a purpose in life. The animals were my bridge to connecting to people. Then I joined a book group. And had fun! I do things I would never have done 4 years ago, and they all involve other humans.

We have names for collectives of animals. A congregation of alligators, a battery of barracudas, an obstinancy of buffalo, a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, etc.

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We don’t have such creative names for groups of humans. Women in particular tend to reach out to other women for support and friendship. We need a name. I propose a wonder of women. I finally reached that point in my life where I have discovered that women who gather in groups don’t “cat fight” or backstab; okay, we might gossip a bit. But we help and support each other, offering good listening skills, advice if wanted, and understanding.

A study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor suggests that women are genetically hardwired to respond to stress by “seeking and befriending”. I most recently sought and befriended by attending the Ethelridge Road Knitting Salon, in upstate New York last week. What attracted me was the presence of one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend 2 days in her company. I can knit, but it’s been a while. I was willing to dust off my needles and relearn casting on and purling in order to meet Alice Hoffman.

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I got to meet Alice Hoffman!

I recently wrote about having read her book Faithful and how I connected to the main character Shelby. Shelby would have loved our dog mascot for the weekend, Millie.

I had an amazing experience in so many ways. First of all, it really was an adventure for me. I went so far out of my comfort zone (which is admittedly fairly small), renting a car and driving around upstate New York, staying by myself in a bed and breakfast. I felt so grown up.

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All grown up and ready to join my life.

Was it worth it? Undoubtedly! Everyone was warm and welcoming, helpful and interested. We talked, we knitted, we listened to Alice read, we wrote, we ate well. Our hosts, including Millie, were welcoming and made us feel at home.

It was like Brownies, only better! Arts and crafts–check. Snacks–check. Scary troop leader–no way! And no camping!

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We all made amulets after listening to Alice read a lovely fairy tale, Amulet.
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Happily crafting away.

The only thing missing from my perspective–a cat.

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The B and B was just missing a cat. One would’ve made it perfect.

I’m home now, surrounded by cats, with new knitting projects, new friends to keep in touch with, and charmed memories. I plan to go again next year if all goes well.

My deepest thanks to everyone involved in making the experience so special. It means more to me than words can convey. And you didn’t make me sell cookies or camp!

Peace and hugs.

The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

guests cover

Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

slippers

 

Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

Grove Prk Inn ball photo
Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
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 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

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Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm

Just call me Little Shit

About 3 years or so ago, I started to write a memoir of the summer of 1972. When I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, I put aside the work in progress, but I still think about it a lot, and hope to get back to it someday. I envision something poignant yet with humor, along the lines of Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy. If you can’t laugh at your own dysfunctional family, life can be pretty grim.

 

A little back story: in the summer of 1972, my mother, who until late 1971 had seemed to be a sensible, level-headed woman, married her second husband, Van, who I thought then and still sometimes think, was the devil. He was tall and freakishly thin, with a pointy beard. He smoked and drank pretty much all of the time, and didn’t really seem to like children.

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My mother, at the time 36 years old, a pretty widow with 4 children, had dated and had some serious beaux, some of whom we all liked and wouldn’t have minded her marrying. All 4 of us were in agreement that we greatly minded her marrying Van.

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My beautiful mother in 1969.

But marry him she did, on July 15, 1972. She sold our beloved house on Dyson Drive, and we moved to the previously unknown (to us) city of Sacramento, California.

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Or some of us did. Cathy, #1 sister, was already married herself, with an adorable baby who I was going to miss seeing grow up. Ellen, next up, was forced on the death march to Sacramento, but then would fly back to Atlanta to finish her senior year of high school while living with her best friend. Brother Steve and I had no choice in the matter. I was 10 and he was 14. I even considered asking to live with my grandmother, Nanna, but I was a little afraid of her anyway and figured it wasn’t going to happen.

We were loaded up in the Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and began the 2 week trek along the southern route from Georgia to California. Remember, it was summer and there was no air conditioning in said station wagon. No one used the term second-hand smoke. MADD had yet to be formed. And Ellen has a tendency to car sickness (somewhat exagerrated in my writing, sorry Ellen).

chvrolet impala wagon

Van did all of the driving, both he and Mom smoking and drinking Seagram’s Seven with ginger ale the entire journey. He had this black case that looked like it was for some sort of spy business; it was the mobile bartending set.

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He was never pulled over for drinking while driving or, as I hoped he would be, child endangerment. In my daydreams while in the hot, smoky car, we would be taken by law enforcement and sent back to Nanna and Cathy in Atlanta. My mother would cry and realize the error of her ways, Van would be thrown in jail, and we’d go back to life as it was meant to be.

No such luck. I spent a lot of the trip in the “way back” of the station wagon, as far from the front seat and the devil as possible. Have you seen the film The Way, Way Back? That brings up a lot of memories for me.

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Liam James in The Way, Way Back (2013).

That’s the summer I was given my nickname Little Shit. Of course, Van was the only one who ever called me that, or even seemed to think I was such a thing. He did bring out the worst in me, I admit.

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At the Alamo on the 1972 cross-country trip. From left, Van (aka Satan), Ellen, Steve, and me (aka Little Shit). I don’t remember what I was mad about.

 

I’ve decided to start posting some excerpts of what I’ve written so far, just for fun. It’s the first draft, not particularly polished. Today’s vignette takes place in the New Mexico desert. We have just spent way too long in Texas, and are finally headed from El Paso to Tucson, Arizona.

 

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[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

“I really need to pee!” I wail from the way back of the station wagon, where I’ve set up camp behind the ice chest with my books and art supplies. Ellen moans from the back seat, “I have to throw up.” She’s been carsick since we left Georgia. We all hoped the straight, flat roads of the New Mexico desert would help, but she’s still curled in a hot, sweaty, miserable ball. Up in the driver’s seat, Van takes a sip of his drink and, through exhaled cigarette smoke, says grudgingly, “Okay, but be quick,” as he pulls off the road into the only gas station for miles.

            I jump out of the car and run to the gas station bathroom. As I hurry back out, I can see Steve’s gleeful face at the back window, waving goodbye to me and pressing down the door lock as the station wagon pulls out of the gas station and enters the lonely highway, a trail of dust in its wake.

            I don’t cry. I don’t chase the car. It’s hot in New Mexico, but different from the heat of Georgia, and I like the way the sky stretches out in all directions, nothing green to be seen. “Excuse me, sir, is there a Coke machine?” The man at the pump points the way. I finger the cat’s-head shaped coin purse I have tucked in my pocket, insert the coins in the machine. It’s my favorite, the Coke in small glass bottles, and it’s icy cold.

            I can see the car heading across the desert, getting smaller as it heads toward Tucson on the way to California. Part of me wants it to keep going without me, but part of me wonders how long it will take Mom to notice or care that I’m not in the car.

            “They’ll come back,” says the attendant, whose name patch identifies him as Eddie. “Not the first time a family’s driven off without somebody. There’s a chair inside, where it’s a little cooler.” Maybe he’ll adopt me, I think. He seems nice enough, and I much prefer his smell of gasoline and oil to Van’s smell of whisky and cigarettes. I sip the Coke and wish I had my book. I look longingly at the television set in the corner but Eddie doesn’t take the hint.

            I don’t wear a watch, and have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here, my shorts-clad legs sticking to the vinyl chair and my hair damp against my neck. “Here they come,” points out Eddie, though the overloaded station wagon is hard to miss in the empty surroundings.

            “Little shit,” Van grumbles as he opens the car door and lets me in. Mom is lighting a cigarette. Ellen is clutching her paper barf bag. Steve is trying not to laugh. I get in the car and crawl over the seats into the way back. I wave to Eddie as we pull back out on the highway.

 

 

Please let me know what you think! I’ll post more bits and pieces if you like them. I think the next one up might be Mom and Van’s wedding.

Peace and hugs from A Girl Named Little Shit.

me

The word soup in Thomas Wolfe’s refrigerator

If you have ever met me or read my blog, you know that I am not a tall person. And I’m okay with that. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, was not a small person. I assume he was okay with that. Tall people come across with a sense of authority and power to us shorties. I am 5′ 0″. Wolfe was 6′ 6″.

Tom and me
Due to budget constraints, the “life size” Wolfe is only 6′ 0″. The actual life size me is 5′ 0″. Add 6 more inches difference. He was really tall; just sayin’.

 

I’ve always kind of known about Thomas Wolfe, mostly from the book title You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940) and the romanticized view of Southern writers that an avid reader who spent her childhood in Georgia can’t escape.

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After watching the film Genius, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer A. Scott Berg book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978)  and writing about it, I have continued reading and researching into the life of Thomas Wolfe.

 

I loved the film, but after my recent sojourn to Indianapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society, I have even more questions. (And I’m buying yet more books. Running out of places to put them all!).

 

What was interesting to me is that so many dedicated Wolfe scholars and readers had some negative reactions to the film, which we watched together at the Indianapolis Public Library as a part of the weekend. Author Berg, on the other hand, who spoke to us to a standing ovation at our closing banquet, was pleased with the film. And I still love it.

 

genius poster

 

 

One of the complaints from the group about the film was the casting of Jude Law as Wolfe. Law, in my opinion, did a wonderful job, but he’s not anywhere close to 6′ 6″ and 250 plus pounds. But what actor would be close to that without being some former wrestler or football player of dubious acting ability? Law is better looking than Wolfe, but it’s a movie. I can look past that!

tom and jude

 

The book had been considered for films for many years, according to Berg. At one time, Paul Newman was slated to play Max Perkins. And at another, Tim Robbins wanted to play Wolfe. That I can see, in his younger days.

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A young Tim Robbins, who is 6′ 5″.

One thing to keep in mind is that the film is based on a book about Max Perkins, the editor who wrangled with Wolfe and served as a father figure to him in many ways. In the book, next on my to-read list, Perkin’s relationships with 2 of his other writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are also featured. It’s not a biography of Wolfe.

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In speaking about the casting of Jude Law, Berg said that in the interviews he did for the Perkins book, it was mentioned that when Wolfe first appeared in Perkins’s doorway at Scribner’s, Perkins saw, in his mind, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Berg sees Shelley in Law’s countenance. Of course, we don’t have photos of Shelley to get an accurate idea, but there are portraits.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My imagination was totally captured by the images in the film of Wolfe writing as fast he could, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, sheets of paper flying through the air as he filled them with words. I imagine the inside of his head as a swirling word soup. Mine often is like that, but my word soup tends to stay soupy and muddled, whereas Wolfe was able to put the words into such beautiful creations. If we were working in a restaurant, I would be the dishwasher and Wolfe would be the executive chef, the genius who I admire and emulate. Or maybe Wolfe would be the Chef de Cuisine, doing the work of making the delicious soup, and Perkins would be the executive chef, at the pass making sure the plates are perfect before they go out.

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Word soup ingredients.

 

This leads to the burning question, can a refrigerator be used as a desk? Remember that Wolfe was 6′ 6″ tall. A typical 1920s-1930s refrigerator was probably just over 5″.

 

You can buy such a vintage refrigerator today if you think it will help you become a writer.

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Being who I am, I had to test this out. My home refrigerator is 5′ 10″ tall. For me to use it as a desk, I have to stand on the kitchen counter next to it.

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No worries; I sanitized the counter after I was done.

 

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At 6′ 6″, Wolfe could probably even use a modern day refrigerator as a desk if he really wanted to. It wouldn’t be a good ergonomic choice.

 

One of my favorite papers presented at the meeting was by Paula Gallant Eckard of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of the recently published Thomas Wolfe and Lost Children in Southern Literature (2016).

 

There is a common thread of a sense of “lostness” in much Southern literature, especially in regard to children. Eckard discussed, among other contemporary writers, Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, 1987) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011).

 

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Other highlights: the charming performance by the Indiana University Kokomo Players of “Wolfe’s Wanderlust: Scenes and Music from His Life and Fiction”

and the amazing table centerpieces created for the banquet, each based on a theme in Wolfe’s life.

 

Everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I arrived a bit anxious about going into a meeting of scholars with relatively little knowledge. I needn’t have been. They are all eager to share Wolfe with the world and bring him back into the canon of American literature alongside his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He died so young; who knows what legacy he might have left behind.

Speaking of young, the first person I encountered going to register for the conference was my new friend Savannah Wade, from Asheville, North Carolina. Pay attention to that name, she has a bright future ahead of her. I was so impressed with her varied interests and thirst for knowledge. When I was 23 years old, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to get on a Greyhound bus alone and head to an unknown city to meet with anyone! I felt so grown up doing this at age 55. Savannah, now, I can picture writing a work of genius using a refrigerator as a desk. And I can see that she has ways with word soup that I can only dream of.

Savannah
Savannah

And now I must go and dust off the top of my refrigerator. It’s the first time I’ve seen the top of it in a while!

Alternately purring and spitting

Yes, the title could refer to a kitten, like little Jarito (I don’t name them!), the current foster kitten in residence.

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Jarito. I call him JJ.

 

But what I was thinking of with the words “alternately purring and spitting” was Southern writer Eudora Welty and Southern women in American literature. That so aptly describes Southern women to me.

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Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

 

I had heard of Eudora Welty.  GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) tend to look out for Southern writers.

GRITS

 

Even though I’ve lived most of my life in California, I spent my childhood years in Atlanta, Georgia and was raised by proud Southern women. Yes, there are a myriad of social justice and human rights issues to discuss when one brings up the Southern United States, but there is also a unique and sometimes beautiful culture that I wax nostalgic over, even though I didn’t necessarily experience it.

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But what led me to Eudora Welty and a fascination with her was hearing actress Stockard Channing read Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941) on Selected Shorts, one of my favorite NPR podcasts.

American actress, Stockard Channing
Actress Stockard Channing.

The story is hilarious and poignant and so very Southern. The characters have names like Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, and Stella-Rondo. The narrator is Sister. When I heard the story read aloud, I felt right at home! The story was published in her book A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Despite its quirky, humorous overtones and absurd (or not, you decide) characters, there is an undertone of isolation and bitterness in Sister’s narration of the 4th of July holiday in small town Mississippi. The P.O. refers to the post office; Sister is the town’s postmistress.

 

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You can read the story here or listen here, if the links work. It’s well worth the $2.99 to buy your own download if the audio link doesn’t work. I tried, but sometimes I fail!

Welty herself was born and died in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to being a writer, she was also a talented photographer, capturing the lives of the rural poor for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression of the 1930s.

 

Her photographic work is being shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the exhibition Looking South: Photographs by Eudora Welty, on display until September 3, 2017. Art critic John Szarkowski wrote:

“Like those of [Helen] Levitt, Welty’s photographs do not show us the only truths of her subjects’ lives; perhaps they show us only the rarest and most evanescent truths, in which case we are the more grateful for these proofs of their existence.” 

Best known for her short stories, she also published 5 novels. She never married or had children, and kept her life mostly private. Her stories focus on individual lives and stories, using local color and humor to convey sometimes stifling environments and families.

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Illustration by Ryan Sheffield for The Eudora Welty Portrait Reader.

 

As described on the website The Bitter Southerner:

Why Welty? For a lot of us who grew up in the South and liked words, Welty represented not only what we knew, capturing the characters and cadences of our region, but also the range of what was possible — telling honest stories about a place that continues to struggle and progress.

As President Jimmy Carter put it when he presented Welty the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980: “Eudora Welty’s fiction, with its strong sense of place and triumphant comic spirit, illuminates the human condition. Her photographs of the South during the Depression reveal a rare artistic sensibility. Her critical essays explore mind and heart, literary and oral tradition, language and life with unsurpassed beauty. Through photography, essays, and fiction, Eudora Welty has enriched our lives and shown us the wonder of the human experience.”

 

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One can visit Eudora Welty’s home and amazing garden in Jackson. The garden was created by Welty’s mother, Chestina Welty, in 1925 and carefully restored by garden restoration consultant Susan Haltom.

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Eudora Welty’s mother, Chestina tends her roses.
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Eudora Welty’s garden.

Welty’s home is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Eudora lived there from 1925, when she was 16 years old, until her death in 2001. It is located at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson. She gifted the home to the State of Mississippi and it is a museum of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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1119 Pinehurst Street, Jackson, Mississippi.

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I myself am not a gardener. I love the IDEA of gardening, but the REALITY of gardening is another story.

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If you are at all intrigued by the life and work of Eudora Welty, please check out the Eudora Welty Foundation. You don’t have to be one of us GRITS to appreciate her writing or photography. Or of any of the others who I would add to the pantheon of great Southern women writers. Clockwise from upper left: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. There are many more; these are just a very few.

 

Hopefully you feel inspired to read, write, or take some photographs. Or dig in your garden. Or whatever makes you happy, be it painting, cooking, sewing, etc. They can all be therapeutic activities, good for your mental health and sense of well-being. Even observing creativity is good for you–reading, listening to music, or going to a museum. According to the lifestyle website Verily, such activities:

  • Relieve stress
  • Increase and renew brain function
  • Help prevent Alzheimer’s
  • Improve mood
  • Cultivate your social life

So instead of going to the gym, I think I’ll go read a book. In the garden. With some music. Getting healthy!

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Painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855–1941)