Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bernitha and Me -- a short from when I was short

A short blog post about a time when I was shorter.

I was a child of divorce long before it was part of the lexicon for kids in elementary school. By the time I was in third grade, my mom had married and divorced my father and a stepfather. Each time she returned with kids in tow to HER mother, a scary force I called “Kitty”. Kitty worked her entire life and was afraid having a half-grown female calling her “Grandma” would seal her fate, so she lied about her age until the day she died…but I digress.

Mom returned to Kitty’s house, now with two daughters, and no visible income. She got a job and had to arrange for daycare (another nearly-unheard-of phenomenon in the early 1950’s). She found a woman who would keep my sister and me during the day: Bernitha. 

I think she had kids of her own, but I can’t remember…like all childhood memories, mine are vague and selective. I do remember getting chicken pox and lying on Bernitha’s couch, itching. I remember the rule that we couldn’t go outside on summer mornings until the dew had dried…and once we went out, we were to stay out until lunch. Lunch was not nutritious at all: Sugar Buddies! White bread spread with margarine, then sprinkled with white sugar. To keep the sugar from falling all over the table, we quickly folded the bread into a sandwich and ate. I cannot remember ever eating protein at Bernitha’s house.

But what I remember mostly is the music that filled Bernitha’s home…we called it ‘Hillbilly’ music…twangy voices and twangy guitars in equal measure. Pumping from her plastic table radio. All day. Every day. Bernitha often sang along, and in self-defense, I did too. Mom was not amused.

The first time I heard Patsy Cline in the 1960’s after Mom remarried Daddy (the dream of every child of divorce…and I lived it!), I was taken back to Bernitha’s hot, crowded, dark, living room and that tinny music. This was the sound I remember, even though I couldn’t tell you ONE recording artist I heard at her house. But Cline’s raw emotional voice was similar to the ones that created the soundtrack of my middle childhood years.

Since I’m NOT a country fan, I seldom listen or watch current artists, but a recent YouTube video of  LeeAnn Rimes channeling Cline in a recent tribute stopped me, as those powerful childhood memories can do. I listened and found I had tears in my eyes, thinking about that hard time in our lives, and the gruff woman who didn’t necessarily nurture me, but treated me with decency and didn’t make me feel different…tainted…because of the circumstances of my life.

I would tell my students about my childhood, and the extraordinary good luck to see my parents reunited after their years apart. I could see the shock in kids’ eyes to think this old woman also survived divorce. And hillbilly music and Sugar Buddies and Bernitha.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Shorts Challenge -- My review of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

I have written about To Kill a Mockingbird before, here. My friend and I decided to reread it this summer in anticipation of the release of Harper Lee’s new book about Scout. Here is my review of the audible book. This is my first 'shorts' challenge from my friend Rob Miller. 

I cannot remember the first time I read it...I can't tell you how many times I've read it. It's like Scout and her reading...she can't tell her first grade teacher, Miss Caroline, when she started reading and how. She's always been a reader. I've always been enmeshed in this book My mom knew Truman Capote was the model for Dill, but since none of my teachers told me, I hesitated to side with my mom, a woman who barely finished high school, a true auto-didact. Come to find out she was absolutely right.

I've taught this a number of times -- to reluctant kids, to kids who thought it was going to be a hunting manual, to African American kids, one of whom told me everyone said it was a racist book. But he trusted me and our relationship...he knew I would not make him read a racist book. Only one student refused to read it, on tha basis of the 'N' word...but he just wanted to avoid reading at all. He did not appreciate his alternative assignment.

I've never listened to the book...I've never, until now, let the words wash over me at the pace of a gifted storyteller. It was a totally new experience. I fell in love all over again with Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus...and especially Miss Maudie. Sissy Spacek reads the book, and reads it masterfully. Her voice for Scout is spot-on - childish, bright, insightful, and sometimes so incredibly dense. She brought everyone to life, but especially Miss Jean Louise.

I cried at the spots I always cry: "Real courage isn't a man with a gun in his hands. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through..." And, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'" And, "Hey, Boo." I cried at, "Thank you, Arthur, for my children."

But I sobbed through the last reflections from Scout as she stands on the Radley porch and looks out at the world...and reviews the last three years through Arthur's eyes. Sobbed out loud. Spacek's voice and drawl brought those words alive for me. She and Jem and Dill WERE Arthur's children to watch, and watch over. 

My favorite thing to do when my classes finished reading the book, is have students return to the first page or so and reread, with all the story fresh in their minds. It's all there...the whole plot.

I cannot conceive of a time I will tire of this story, and I think this audible format may be my favorite way to experience it...Macomb was an old town, a tired town, and Sissy Spacek's voice lulled me into town like I belonged there.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Summer Reading Challenge -- I'm spending the summer in Macomb, AL.

“Summer Reads” is a tradition my friend and I have enjoyed for several years. We walk together almost every morning – we retired from education at the same time, me from a high school, she as principal of an elementary. We have walked for nearly 20 years, solving the problems of the world and talking about our reading. I’m a character reader and she’s a plot reader, so when we read the same book, we have very different insights.

Ten years or so ago we decided to read a classic each summer and discuss it as we walked her neighborhood or mine. We tried to choose books neither of us had read, and we tried to alternate a British author with an American one. Our first book was Ellison’s Invisible Man – a book my friend’s son challenged her to read with him. One summer we read Atlas Shrugged – a summer I was trapped in several airports with the opinionated Ms. Rand. We’ve read Moby Dick, Grapes of Wrath, The Gilded Age, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter…and others I forgot to chart in GoodReads. The year we read Mrs. Dalloway, I bought each of us a walking map of London, and we followed the characters’ travels on our maps. As readers, we wanted to know more. We both became frustrated with just reading the book and moving on, so we began to look for other works by the authors, or biographies, nonfiction pieces to help us understand the book and the author and the time.

One year we went to Paris and Spain with Ernest Hemingway, reading A Moveable Feast and The Sun also Rises, read several novels about him and his various wives. Mrs. Hemingway is one of my favorites, along with Hemingway’s Girl. We  wallowed in all things Hemingway.

The next summer we read the Brontes…all three sisters: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette, Agnes Grey, and my new favorite, Tenant of Wildfell Hall. We read novels about the sisters, biographies, and collections of their letters. I’ve never set foot in Haworth, England, but it was one of my mother’s favorite places…I felt so close to my mom as I read about the doomed sisters whose lives might have been drab, but whose imaginations and hearts were rich beyond reckoning. Each of their books still has something important to say to modern women.

Last summer we followed F. Scott Fitzgerald and his self-destructive relationship with the beautiful Zelda. We reread The Great Gatsby, and read Tender is the Night, and found several nonfiction books that helped put their lives into perspective. Careless People centered around the Fitzgeralds, NYC, and a sensational murder set around the time of Gatsby. We read Sheila Graham’s son’s biography, Intimate Lies, which chronicled the end of Fitzgerald’s life. I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Last Tycoon. Zelda and her friend Tallula Bankhead were featured in Flappers. Romantic Egoists is a collection of all the scrapbook clippings and playbills and photos that the Fitzgeralds saved.

This summer we are rereading my favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird.  At first we made a rule that we would not reread books, but always find new titles for both of us. With the exception of Grapes of Wrath, which my friend had read, we shied away from books we’ve read…but with Hemingway and the Brontes and Fitzgerald, we’d already broken that rule, so we are happily rereading.

I recently bought a brand new paperback copy and reread it. While reading, I would post photos of some of my favorite lines to FaceBook. I was amazed at how many friends and former students responded, inspiring many conversations about the book. That rereading taught me the power of a reading community. I wrote about that rereading here.

We are spending the summer in Macomb County, Alabama, in anticipation of the release of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, next month. This summer I am listening to the audible book, read by Sissy Spacek, with her warm drawl and deep understanding of the characters. I’m hearing things I’ve missed before. Calpurnia taught Scout to write…Scout and then Jem, and then Atticus all use the same words, “It’s not time to worry.” But Scout says the words first. We’ve searched for materials about the elusive Ms. Lee and the book. We will face the concerns about Ms. Lee being victimized by editors and publishers as those issues arise. 

Our reading list is set:

The Mockingbird Next Door
I Am Scout
Scout, Atticus and Boo
Up Close, Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird, Threatening Boundaries

And of course: Go Set a Watchman.

How very lucky I am that I have a walking partner who’s shared a huge chunk of my professional life and personal life. A friend who shares books and authors, who loved to talk about books as much as I do, and who suggested, all those summers ago, that we spend our time with classics. I am richer for this.

So, I challenge you: What book or author do you want to know better? What book will you challenge yourself with? How will you grow as you read for pleasure and for enlightenment? What book will you be talking about when you return to school next fall? Let me know, so I can read it too.

In fact, do you want to join us in reading TKAM? We could do an online reading group! You wouldn’t have to come to Norman and walk with us in the mornings.