Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2015

Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters  in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

The world is round, round like a green-gray melon. I believe this. I know this as fact. I know this deep within myself. I know this, not because I read it in a thick, dusty book or heard it whispered in my ear by a classmate. I know that the earth is round just like the globe I always stared at in the lobby of the building where the Waterman Steamship Line had its worldwide headquarters a few blocks from Bienville Square in Mobile.   It was not because of Waterman’s globe that I know but because of her ships that I learned that the earth curves gently down before me as I look to the horizon. I know the earth is a ball because I have seen it for myself.

To seem to do nothing

I would wish for every human being the pleasure of seeing the Bay as I have seen it. I would wish for all the joy of seeming to do nothing, but of doing much just by sitting still on the rocks of the jetty that thrusts itself out into the water and by looking. I have watched freighters steam forty miles down the Bay, plowing the green water in a long foaming furrow-wake that flowed out unnoticed until it tangled with the bottom in the shallows and stood up to crash in a curling surf. I have watched the ships sail from the docks at the head of the Bay to the edge of the world underway to foreign ports with accented names. There, painted on the southern line drawn between sky and water, the ships—I have observed—slowly descended. First the hull sank low, then the superstructure, then the smoke stack, until, at last, only a plume of smoke trailed up like an arrow marking where she went over the edge.

Ships rise from over the horizon

And watching that horizon intently I have seen smoke, just a wisp, pull up the barrels of chimneys from out the Gulf beyond Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores, chimneys I knew that were marked with a “W.” Then a hull would emerge with its red water line rising in turn from the Gulf. No dragons lay beyond the joint of the circle of green and the bowl of blue. Climbing a pine tree I could see a little farther over the curve of the earth and farther out to sea. I could see a little more than those who were content to stand on the ground. Joining them, I drew in the sand what my eye saw: a boy looking to the edge of sight, the corner of the sky. I imagined that the gulls could see a grander circle from their great heights than the small world of a fiddler crab on the beach. So on a calm day I plunged into the Bay’s quiet water sinking down until my eyes barely cleared the surface, a centimeter above the water line. There I saw it! The horizon zoomed in to only a thousand yards away. The beach across the Bay slipped out of view. Only the pine-covered tops of the bluffs of Fairhope peaked above the water. Mon Louis beyond Dog River sank and rose with me as I alternately sat or stood in the water. I saw the earth curving down before me obscuring what lay beyond my line of sight. A great exhilaration flowed over me like the water that dripped from my nose. I could see for myself the pregnant swell of the earth’s belly.

Feeling the pull of the Sun and moon

I went again and again to the jetty. I always found it faithful. I studied hard at the school of seeing. One day I saw a long, low heap of water pile up. The quarter moon stood high in the pale blue sky, gray and ghostly. I saw the tide coming. I had seen the tidal flow before, swirling around the pilings at the mouth of Dog River. I had seen the boats float higher and higher on each swell. I had seen the tide stall the lazy flow of the river and send salt water upstream and into the creeks and sloughs and bogs, all the way up to the swamp puddle that lay behind my house. The combined pull of the moon and the sun reached across thousands of miles of emptiness to draw up the drops of water, at least a little. And the water’s surface tracked the sun and moon as the earth turned beneath them. Then I realized that the moon was pulling on me, too, lifting a fraction of my weight from me. Like invisible threads joining the dust of the moon and flaming gas of the sun to the cells of my body, gravity tugged and pulled at me. And I pulled back. The moon then adjusted its orbit infinitesimally because of my trek to the beach. I left the beach feeling the earth pull my bare feet to it in a weighty embrace. And my toes tugged back boyishly on the great green ball on which I walked and ran and sat, watching. And when the wizards of the flat earth tried to tangle my thoughts with purloined and perverted theories of light and gravity to stand arguments on their heads, I simply shook mine. The earth is round, I say, rounder than our imagination. This I know, for I have seen it. You have my word on it.

But never mind . . . go see for yourself.

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

A pack of camels is a symbol of judgement for Sammy    Photo credit: S. Matteson

A pack of camels is a symbol of judgement for Sammy Photo credit: S. Matteson

I sometimes wonder about Jesus. And I wonder what people would say about him if he lived in my neighborhood. I suspect that you would find him, if you were the inquisitive sort, at Joe McGovern’s Tavern on the Bayfront after he left the cabinet shop down the road. He would be eating fried flounder and drinking a beer, listening to fish stories the men who frequent Joe’s liked to tell. He would look out over the water and see the lights of the flounderers gigging the flat fish in the shallows of Mobile Bay. He would listen to the men, who smelled of day-old sweat and too many yeasty brews, as they squinted through the blue smoke from their cigarettes. He would laugh at their jokes and look at them with eyes that look right through you. And they would look back at a man with big hands and sawdust in his hair, one that listened hard, like he really cared what you were saying.

Religion is in the salt air

In Alabama we don’t hide our religion in a broom closet. Spirituality is not so much a private issue as I have heard that it is up north. We aren’t embarrassed to say, “I’m a Baptist, a Methodist, a Born-again-twice-blessed-Pentecostal Brethren. Or he’s a Catholic, a Jew, or a reprobate.” (Chances are, too, we knew somebody who was the latter and one of the other categories at the same time.) We get out more, I suppose. Out in the woods and out on the water. It is hard not to be spiritual, even if in an unorthodox way, when you walk out under the moss-hung oaks and hear the whispers on the bay breeze, the whispers of long dead loved ones and of enemies, and of people gone on ahead.

Everybody in Mobile is religious, it seemed to me. Even—or particularly—fishermen, though frequently they didn’t seem very pious. But rare is the fisherman of my acquaintance that doesn’t tip his hat to God now and again. Just to be on the safe side. Too many fellows have gone out on a sunny day and not come back after the sudden storm.

But, if Jesus lived on Bayfront road there would be talk. Of that I am sure. There always is. Church people can be the meanest flock of birds in the world. Like a yard full of chickens that peck another hapless biddy to death because of a spot on her head. Dad quit the church for a while once because the Deacons were pecking away at the preacher in a squabble. When he could stand it no more my Dad embarrassed me to death: he stood up in a business meeting, leaned on his good leg and requested that his name be struck from the church rolls. He would have no part in the fight. He had been the Chairman of the Deacons, too—until then. The fight was about which side of the church we would put the organ, I think. No, it wasn’t really about that at all, when I think about it; that’s just what people said it was about; what they talked about. It was really about who was in charge, the Preacher or the Deacons. People and chickens, just the same, it seems.

A Disappointment

The Church had a Youth Camp down on the bayou with a weekend of meetings, singing, games, and preaching by an itinerant youth evangelist just five years older than I was. All the girls were in love with him and all the boys wanted to be him, even if only to have the girls love them. He shared a cabin with me and four other boys. Since I was in charge of the sports equipment and had worn myself out trying to keep up with volleyballs, softballs, bats and horseshoes for forty or fifty careless teenagers, I got to take a nap one afternoon during the fifth evangelistic service of the weekend. I walked into the cabin where the suitcases were laid out on the bunks. One beat-up tweed suitcase stood open. I wasn’t snooping, but I saw there, stuck in the corner under a pair of socks, a pack of Camels. Cigarettes are very much against the rules at a Youth Camp. Smokes are an unholy vice, as everyone knew at my church, since smoking was declared a venal sin, along with drinking, rock and roll, and dancing, of course. Cigarettes on the hollowed grounds? Appalling! And what is more, the suitcase lay on the Preacher’s bunk!

I did not sleep well during my nap. I was at once horrified, disappointed, angry, betrayed and bewildered. “The nerve of that man! To preach holiness to teenagers in ponytails and tee shirts; to exhort kids in white socks and poodle skirts to strive for purity and all the while secretly winking at his own sins! He is just like all the other men folk who stand around on the back stoop of the church house, smoking between services and then go in to pass the offering plate, their breath still smelling of tobacco.” I woke up with a headache.

I waited sullenly, until my righteous indignation turned to smoldering shame.   After the kids spilled out of the chapel back into the cabins, Billy, a pre-delinquent thug, sauntered into the room, shut his suitcase and moved it from the preacher’s bunk up onto his own.

If Jesus lived in my neighborhood, I wonder if he would smoke Camels. It probably wouldn’t matter. People would think he did. The church people would disapprove. He would smell of the smoke of Camel cigarettes because he spent too much time at the tavern loving fishermen.

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954    photo credit: Sammy Matteson

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954 photo credit: Sammy Matteson

Read Full Post »

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY.  Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY. Leaning against the hearth is a crude broom that evokes the memory of the yard broom of the story. Photo: Sam Matteson

Some heirlooms are not as ponderous as a black wrought iron pot or as self-consciously decorative as a crocheted doily. Some treasures passed down by mothers to their children through the generations are as intangible as they are precious, nevertheless they are as pointed as Pa Moates’ awl, even if as ephemeral as the breath of my first grand child, Paul, on my cheek when I held him close on the day he was born,   Paradoxically, the most enduring legacy is one that is beyond our touch; it may seem ever out of reach—impalpable, even ghost-like, yet never beyond touching us.   The artifact of most durable beauty is often invisible to others, a holy relic of the spirit. Such are the “yard sweepers.”

Down South, stories are part of the fabric of society and of who we are. Narrative weaves between the people: over one, under another, in a Jacquard of life and history. In the damask and twill of struggle, lessons are writ in the tales that define and give meaning to our history—personal as well as corporate. The stories may be remolded by memory and the retelling, growing a patina of myth, but their truth shines through unmistakably. A treasured century-old aphorism came to me that way, told first by my Ma Bertie to a favorite daughter Audrey; bequeathed by her to a son, me, and passed on to his progeny. We all share it as if it were a familial watchword that allows us safe passage into the larger family, a shibboleth of belonging. We know it; we treasure it; we pass it on because it is ours—and because it is true. And because we belong to it.

A Tangible Memory Encountered

It comes to mind again, resuscitated in physical reality on a summer day by our visit to a living history museum. It is like a lace curtain—so often ignored—that unexpectedly billows, propelled by spirit or by wind, a genteel but bracing slap across our face. My daughter echoes her great grandmother, whom she knows only in story and in her admonition: “Sweep the backyard first.”

We are standing before a restored antebellum dog trot set high on orange fired brick pillars with a broad pine stoop leading up to the covered porch that wraps around the clapboard structure like an apron drawn up with a string on the ample waist of a matron. From the creaking rocking chairs we survey the yard under the pines and oaks. There is not one blade of grass for a hundred yards in every direction until the shoulder-high weeds begin over there, on the way out to the field that is a dark and dangerous tangle, cut only by a beaten path. This was precisely the way of the early days of the rural twentieth century of my mother’s Alabama youth, recreated faithfully here, a custom born of practicality. Fire and snakes menaced the home when grass grew too close to the door. So bare dirt yards were the norm then, long before suburban homeowners took to grass farming and became perennial lawn mowers and greens keepers.

A broomstraw yard sweeper stands in the corner ready for its daily ritual of grooming the tamped and barren earth. Grass and weed seed fall but never take root when daily swept away. “We swept the yard,” Mother frequently told me “to make it safe.” But “Mother,” my mother intoned with impressive gravity and slow incantation, “Always reminded me, ‘Sweep the backyard first’.”

On a beach on another day, I retrieve a clam and oyster shell and learn again the same, simple lesson. I hold the clamshell in my left hand and marvel at its symmetry and fluted ridges. Inside, however, is plain and unremarkable. The oyster shell in my other hand seems fit only for roadwork and fill, so apparently misshapen and drab, until I turn it over and catch the glint of mother of pearl and iridescent beauty—within.

A Treasure In Your House

Subsequently, my kindergartener grandson visits my home while I am away, and plays at pirates and treasure maps. Returning, I find his note: “FROM PAUL TO PAPA… THER. IS. A. CHRECHIR. CHEST. IN. YOUR. HAWS.” Old truth, ever iridescent, flashes again in his innocent script. When in the press of pride and self-absorption I am tempted to expend my energy in meaningless show and glory-seeking, I hear again my grandmother and her Good Book speaking: “Honey, sweep the back yard first. Where your treasure is, there your heart really lives.”

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

Read Full Post »

There are many things in life that I have never figured out, things which forever seem a mystery. There was a time, with the arrogance of youth, when I thought I could—given enough time—figure out anything. Science, now, that’s how you do it, and mathematics. By the 1950s we had figured out how to fly faster than the speed of sound; we had flung satellites in orbit, and we would, before the end of the century, put a man on the moon and return him safely home. We had discovered penicillin. We had recently conquered the scourge of polio. Surely, there was nothing that lay beyond our reach or beyond our understanding. So I thought before I learned how very much we really did not know and how puzzling the simplest events could be. So I profoundly believed—before Uncle Grover conjured my wart.

Toads To Blame

I played in the dirt and handled toads routinely in those days. Such was the way of child’s play where I lived. And child’s play is a child’s job. Warts were, therefore, an occupational hazard. My wart was of astonishing size and was situated at the extreme vertex of my elbow. When I touched the alien growth with the fingers of my opposite hand, it lacked feeling and moved about as if only incidentally attached to my arm. Looking in the mirror, my arm twisted awkwardly upward, I observed it. It was as if one of my cat’s eye marbles had taken up residence under the skin on my elbow. I stared at it in the glass for a long time. It was amazing and frightening at the same time.

I suppose I had infused the knot of flesh with a virus—an organism of which we were ignorant then—by my habit of resting my chin on my fists, my elbows securing a foothold in the dirt, to form a steady A-frame. Thus stabilized, I—preternaturally a scientist at heart—could satisfy my curiosity by looking at things: by observing ants scurrying down a trail among the leaves; by staring at the ripples tadpoles made in the rainwater of the bar ditch; or by watching the waves break on the beach of the Bayfront. My wart was a huge and awkward knob of flesh. It was annoying.

Once, during a visit to Ma Bertie and Pa’s house in Panama City, Florida, my grandmother noticed the ugly growth. She reached out and gently stroked my elbow with her free hand. “What you got there, honey chile?”

“Just a wart.”

“Does it bother y’all?”

“Some.”

She paused a minute and stirred silently some Sun Perch she was frying for supper. Then she spoke deliberately. “Go down the street to the white house at the end, the one with the big porch. Show your wart to your Uncle Grover. He’ll know what to do ‘bout it. . . . Run along now; supper’s almost ready.”

A Visit to Uncle Grover’s House

I did as she instructed, but not without trepidation. Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates was one of my Pa’s elder brothers. He was an even more ancient variation on my grandfather, smelling of decrepitude and Camel cigarette smoke, with age-spotted hands, and deeply creased, leathery skin clinging to his jowls where sprouted a thin haze of white stubble. He said little the few times before when I had visited him with my grandparents on his porch, and what he said was gruff. To go to his house alone was intimidating. I walked past the live oaks beside the lane, their menacing Spanish moss fingers admonishing me not to venture into the unknown at the end of the street. The ominous shadows of the evening also were creeping ahead of me toward Uncle Grover’s house as I walked toward it. They arrived just before I did. But I was relieved when I saw my great uncle lounging out front in a ladder backed chair, his lanky legs crossed before him. I had no desire to enter his alien white-washed frame house. Who knew what lurked inside?

Walking up to his slightly bent, cadaverous form, I pretended more courage than I felt and showed him my wart. “Ma Bertie said I should show you this here wart.”

Uncle Grover pushed back on his balding head a felt hat and adjusted a pair of rimless spectacles that rode astride his monumental “Moates” nose.

“She’s a big ‘un, ain’t she?” He commented as he uncrossed his legs and sat upright. “You want me to conjure it for y’all?”

“What do you mean?

“Conjure it; make it go away.”

“You can do that?”

“They call me a ‘wart taker’ cuz conjuring works a’time. Done it for lots a folks afore. You want me to get ridda the wart, or not?”

“I guess so.”

A Wart is Conjured

“Well, just stand still, boy! Stop yore fidgetin’. Let’s us just see what we can do.” He grasped each of my shoulders with his bony right and left hands and roughly squared up his hesitant client to face him head on. He slid forward to the edge of his chair. It creaked a small complaint as he moved. I stood on the ground before him, trembling slightly. Doubling up my arm, my uncle, the wart taker, held it against my chest with one hand where I could feel my heart beating hard against the inside of my chest. He began gently rubbing the end of my elbow with the upturned palm of his other hand and simultaneously mumbling a quiet incantation. His gaze was fixed in concentration: distant, looking over my shoulder.

After a few seconds he announced, “Wart’ll be gone in a few days.”

I felt a little disappointed. “You don’t gotta bury a dead cat or something?”

“No, there’s no need. Best things are simple. No need for prettification.”

I thanked him in my most polite manner. (My mother would have been proud, I thought.) Parting amenities completed, I ran back to my grandparents’ house and dinner, happy to be done with the unsettling ritual. I, nevertheless, was skeptical and would have forever remained so until two days later when we returned home to Mobile. I reached into the car through an open window to fetch a toy from the backseat and brushed my elbow against the door frame. The wart ripped from my arm and fell onto the floor, a bloody knot of flesh. I stopped doubting Uncle Grover then. He had, indeed, conjured my wart. It was not as I had expected, nor do I know how he did it, but it was, in fact, gone from my arm, never to return.

I Despair of Understanding

There are things that I have learned to be true that I don’t understand. There are other things I will never understand, partly because I will not live long enough and partly because I have been to the edges of my understanding and looked over. And partly, too, because some things defy figuring out.

I can still hear Uncle Grover’s gravelly voice saying, “Well, Sammy Gene, you don’t need to dress it up any. Sometimes a thing is just itself, and it’s a mystery.”

I think I hear him mumbling: slow, low, solemn: “Wart, go away! Wart, go away! Wart, go away!” His hand is trembling, circling gently, touching my planter’s wart that mistook my elbow for a foot. His hand is as soft as a whisper in your ear, as gentle as a moth’s wing upon your forearm, touching, doing its work profoundly but also almost imperceptibly. I know now that Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates, a retired octogenarian, sitting on his porch in overalls, was wiser and closer to the truth than many whom I have met and who wear black gabardine university gowns and sit on the dais and from whom all wonder has drained away.

Some things, I have concluded, are and will ever remain, indeed, just themselves— a mystery.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland, Christopher Columbus, John Adams Family photo.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland (wart conjurer), Christopher Columbus, John Adams Photo credit: Annette Moates Sasser (Uncle Grover’s granddaughter) ca. 1952

Read Full Post »