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Posts Tagged ‘childhood; kite ; Mobile’

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. It was decades later and leagues away from the swamps outside Mobile—after I left home for good—that I learned of the pleasures of button, Shitake and honey mushrooms, of mushroom and Alfredo cream sauce, of sautéed mushrooms and onions, of salads with sliced, fresh mushrooms and almonds, of meaty portabellas, morels and golden chanterelles. Such exotic delights had to wait for sophistication. But when I was a child of the 50s, mushrooms were treacherous plants—as everyone knew. People died eating them.

We were convinced of the facts because we encountered ‘shrooms all the time in the woods. Circles of the white and elegant Death Angel grew in mysterious, deadly fairy rings in forest glens. Overnight, after a rain, brown-encrusted buttons pushed up from the black humus, summoned by unknown malevolent powers. Dire warnings were not lost on us about eating wild fungi and the fate that befell indiscriminant mycophagists.

We Kept Our Distance

We were well acquainted with mushrooms, but without really knowing them. We encountered them everywhere but maintained only a nodding acquaintance. Mushrooms, toadstools, bracket mold, and mildew, all were denizens of the dark and decaying places of the earth. No place was safe. Even in our bathroom in the humid corner under the toilet tank, there grew up what my mother—a proper Southern lady—called a Devil’s Finger: red, sticky and rank. But in my roguish imagination Lucifer’s fungal appendage seemed something more phallic—and alarming—than an interloping digit.

Thus there was no escaping the incursion of mushrooms into our lives. And mushrooms and toadstools were indistinguishable to children. So we maintained an uneasy truce, keeping our distance, we and the fungi. Perhaps, if we gave them a wide enough berth, they would not harm us.

At the same time my Mother Audrey, faced a daily and challenging question that grew ever more acute as she “X-ed” her calendar, inching toward Dad’s next payday: “What am I to feed my hungry children?” I am sure that she felt like the mother bird with a nest of open-mouthed chicks that are never satisfied, all pin feathers, flightless wings and mouths agape. I see her standing before a near-empty pantry, one hand on her hip, one hand drumming her cheek, her eyes scanning the labels of the few remaining cans on the shelf. “What to feed them? Oh, Lord have mercy! What to feed them? Ah! Soup! And toast.   ‘Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.’ Mmmm…I wonder? No Tomato. This is all we have. It’ll have to do.”

Anti-fugal Insurrection

In retrospect, I, Sammy Gene Matteson—as the eldest, at the cheeky age of nine—must have been the provocateur who incited the riot, the one who reminded his sister Cindy Lou, his junior by twenty months and their brother “Baby” Dale, soon to turn six, of the admonitions regarding eating wild mushrooms.

“What if they made a mistake at the soup cannery?” I began.

“Yeah! . . . What if they put in a toadstool by mistake?” Cindy added.

I continued, “It could happen. Remember when we got the piece of rag in the can of beans?”

They both nodded.

“What if Mother has finally had it with us? We have been a little naughty, lately. . . . Do to think she is trying to get rid of us?”

I thought of the headlines: “MOTHER OF THREE POISONS KIDS! MUSHROOM SOUP IMPLICATED!” We began to bawl. We began to howl.

“What’s the matter, children?”

“You’re trying to poison us! You’re feeding us toadstools!”

“Nonsense!”

Her reply did not convince us. Indeed, nothing she said made any difference. No reasoning, no cajoling, no pleas had any effect. At last, her face reddened in frustration, then she began to cry, too. “This is all I have to give you. Can’t you eat it? It won’t kill you.”

After more tears and more negotiation, we children finally agreed to drink the creamy soup, but we resolutely refused to eat the “poisonous” mushroom pieces that floated in it. I finished my soup first. I looked down to glimpse an ironic half-formed fairy ring of uneaten mushroom bits smirk back at me from my bowl.

I hear my beleaguered Mother’s voice once again, and it breaks my heart. For from this distance I understand, at last. She set more on the table than food: she ladled love-seasoned desperation into our empty bowls. She offered up everything she had, meager and unwelcome though it was to us. We did not mean to be cruel. I only hope that she forgave our anti-fungal insurrection. Surely she did. But whether she did or she did not, she never tried to feed us mushroom soup again.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) "Baby" Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) “Baby” Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

Postscript:

As those who follow this blog will notice, this vignette was read for the Listen to Your Mother casting. We were disappointed to learn that it did not fit with the directors’ vision for this year’s production. More the better for my readers, since the tale is too true and too “rich” to sit on the shelf.

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Moments of pure and unalloyed joy are rare. But the glow of their memory lights our way in the dark, lonely, struggling days when our determined head is down with clinched teeth and our shoulders strain against the ropes of our responsibilities.

I have always loved flying things: birds—geese as they vee across the sky or sparrows that explode at the threat of an arm-waving child, only to coalesce again on the wind; clouds, like cotton wads that scrub the blue overhead; even leaves that dive from the branches in fall in a last bravura show, to swirl and dance for a few seconds becoming earth-bound; and kites.

I love kites.

Kites are magical

Something magical uncoils when a kite goes up. A fresh breeze is an invitation to flight. I hear the rattle of paper. A short dash with your hair combed by a gust until the string pulls hard against your finger. Pay out the line fast and get the paper bird up a few more feet where the wind does not stumble on the trees or the houses or the concerns of people. Bliss.

I first learned of kites before the sleek technology of rip-stop nylon and carbon fiber struts. Paper and balsa and cotton string were the materials of the sky-yearner. And rags for tails. Diamond kites were the way to go. A cross of balsa sticks tied at the junction; string around the outside with newspaper laid over and glued at the edges. A tail and a string bridle, and you were set. Except you had to have the tail; and it had to be just right.   Too short and the kite would whirligig and crash into the ground, too long and the weight would keep it on the ground. The tail bothered me. An elegant airfoil dragged down by a trail of rags somehow did not seem right.

Box Kites have no tails!

Then I read about a box kite. No tail! I dreamed of it: launching the device and seeing it sail, higher and higher, to the edge of space where the sky turns dark indigo and the stars and sun share the sky. I had to have one. I saved every penny I could wangle or earn until I had a fist full of coins. I searched the aisles diligently every time we went to market at Delchamps and one Friday it appeared: a 36 inch Monarch box kite, multicolored stripes, fabricated of the finest polyethylene and balsa. Somehow the money I had saved was exactly enough to buy the kite and six balls of string when I gave it to my Mother.

Saturday morning came so late. I hurried through a breakfast of hot cereal and milk. My mother made the predictable remarks about going to a fire and slowing down, but I was not restrained. The kite was assembled in minutes and pockets stuffed with balls of string, I took to the fields behind the house. The wind was just right. The air was falling over the cool earth and rising over the warmer bay churning off shore in the sea breeze that sailors had ridden for centuries out to sea in the morning home again at night. But my thoughts looked higher up. I held the kite up and the wind gently took it from my hand. I heard the plastic panels crackle with anticipation and felt the tug of a river of air dragging the kite down wind and up into the sky. I unrolled one ball of string until I reached the end and then I wrapped around my hand for a while. The string sang a soft tune, whistling a high wailing melody.

A Mile High

I tied on a second ball of string and let it out six inches at a time. The kite rose higher and higher. It grew smaller and smaller. The string ran from my hand in a graceful arc into the blue then disappeared. A tiny rectangle hovered high, dark against a cloud. I shielded my eyes and smiled. Another ball of string, and another. At last, all six balls of string were tied, end-to-end, over six thousand feet of twine between me and the flying thing I had launched. The kite was a barely distinguishable dot a mile away.

I stood still a long time and tasted the air. It was salty and smelled of sunshine. I half-closed my eyes and half-saw the houses and roads and trees, all transformed then into prismatic points of blurry light. The string pulled against my hand and I knew that this thing I had assembled looked down on all that concerns us and everything looked to it so small and unimportant. And I was flying with that kite that had no tail.

Moments of pure joy are rare enough to remember.

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