This is why I’m contesting my grandmother’s will:
I’m really hoping it’s Willie Nelson behind door number 3:
My dad and my dog:
My latest column for The St. Augustine Record:
I am thrilled to announce that I am a new regular contributor to The St. Augustine Record, the local paper in the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida, and also the town I am grateful to call home. It has been my dream to be a newspaper columnist since I discovered Lewis Grizzard, the legendary humorist and syndicated columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when I was in the 9th grade.
Please visit the paper online to find my columns:
Brian Doyle, an award-winning author and the editor of Portland Magazine, says, “Bad personal essays are about the writer. Good personal essays are about all of us.” His point, of course, is that good writing touches something familiar in us. It makes us nod our heads and say, “Uh huh, that reminds me of Cousin Bobby,” or “Yep, I did that once.”
In this month’s Southern Living, Rick Bragg, one of the best personal essayists alive today, writes about Southerners and fireworks. While this particular essay might not be about all Southerners, it is about all Southerners with a Y chromosome. As I read the column, called “When Fireworks Go South,” all I could think about was my uncle Gerry. For starters, Bragg’s opening line, “Southerners, I believe, should not be trusted with fireworks,” could have opened this way: “Gerry Adams cannot be trusted with fireworks.”
It began when he was a kid. He tossed a lit match into a paper bag filled with firecrackers just to see what would happen. After a few seconds of silence, he opened the bag and peeked inside. The bag exploded in his face, and he was lucky he lived to tell it. In his teenage years, he progressed to snapping the tails off of bottle rockets to see what would happen. Bottle rockets without tails tend to chase down the people who maimed them. And don’t get me started on the foolishness of tying a bunch of bottle rockets together and trying to light them all before one goes off.
He progressed to roman candles. The warning label on them clearly states, “Never hold a roman candle in your hand or point it at anyone or anything.” But, I ask you, how can you have a good, old-fashioned roman candle battle unless you’re pointing one at another person? I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Gerry Adams is the reason people in Georgia have to drive to Alabama or South Carolina for their fireworks. (Yes, I know it’s possible to buy some online, but the kind you get online are the starter kits Southerners put in their toddlers’ Christmas stockings).
Despite all his teenage antics, the worst my uncle ever got hurt handling fireworks happened when he was in his forties. He procured a big box of the smelliest stink bombs in the state of Georgia. I was a newlywed, and my new husband and I had just purchased our first car. While my husband stood watching, Gerry opened the driver’s door and bent over to place a stink bomb on the floorboard under the steering wheel. “Don’t do it,” my husband warned. In the South, we all know the words “don’t you do it” are the exact same thing as saying, “I double-dog dare ya.” Gerry straightened his back, grinned at my husband, then raised his foot and stomped that stink bomb right into the carpet of that new car.
At the time, my husband was a 6’3”, 200-pound college football player. Gerry, like I said, was in his forties and was not in the best shape of his life. The punch landed squarely on his jaw, and he hit the ground. The incident ignited a family feud that lasted nearly until my divorce was final in 2007. I don’t condone my then-husband’s actions, of course, but I have to point out that Gerry did fail to heed the warning on the product label: “Caution – Irritant. Break vial and get away.”
Like Bragg, my uncle Gerry is now pretty much out of the fireworks shooting business. But that’s not to say there are no fireworks left in his arsenal. This July 4, I imagine he’ll sit on his back porch with a plate of ribs and a glass of merlot and introduce a new generation of Southerners to the joys of celebrating with pyrotechnics.
Booker T. Washington, the educator and author and president of the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama, gave a famous speech in 1895. In the Atlanta Compromise Speech, he told the story of a ship that was lost at sea for several days. The crew had run out of fresh water, and they were dying of thirst. No land was in sight. Then they spotted a friendly vessel and sent a signal to indicate that they needed water. The other ship immediately sent back this message: “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
The desperate crew sent a second message: “Water, send us water!”
Again, the response came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
Four times this exchange occurred before the captain of the first ship lowered a bucket into the ocean. To his astonishment, that bucket was full of sparkling, fresh water. They were in the Atlantic off the coast of northern Brazil, where the Amazon so powerfully propels its water nearly one hundred miles into the ocean.
Washington concluded his speech with these words: “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of preserving friendly relations with the southern white man who is their next door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down, making friends in every manly way of the people of all races, by whom you are surrounded.”
I was in Ireland last summer, traveling with the Spalding MFA in Writing students at their summer residency and hoping for a shot of encouragement and inspiration as a writer. An hour after I’d arrived and settled in, I headed out for a short guided tour of Dublin, and within the first few minutes of that tour, I met a couple of writers who would do just that – inspire and encourage me. The funny thing is that they live in Orlando, about ninety minutes from my home. They were, so to speak, from my own waters.
Darlyn Finch Kuhn is a poet known for her saucy style and engaging readings. Her poems have been featured on Poetic Logic on WMFE-FM, and read by Garrison Keillor on the Writers Almanac. She was a Kerouac Project writer in residence in 2006. Her first book, Wax Rose, a poetry and short story collection, was published in 2007. Her second book,Three Houses, is a collection of love poems with collaborator Brad Kuhn, her husband. Together, Brad and Darlyn own Brad Kuhn and Associates, a stellar PR firm in Orlando. I have had the pleasure of being an advance reader for her new novel, Sewing Holes. It is a lovely story of a young girl who feels responsible for keeping her family together after the death of her father. Please check out Darlyn’s website: http://darlynfinchkuhn.com.
Another friend I found by casting my bucket in Florida is Jenn, also known as “Scraps.” She’s an artist, a writer, but my favorite thing about her is that she’s a genius amateur bartender. Her website, Scraps of Life, is full of great writing, and if you ever need a great drink recipe, check out the “Nibbles and Sips” section.
I spent last week in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Spalding MFA Homecoming celebration, partly to see old friends and partly in search of more inspiration. The MFA program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, told the Booker T. Washington story at graduation to explain that inspiration is everywhere. And it’s available to each of us if we’ll just lower the bucket. I just finished a manuscript that is the history of Community Bible Church, the ministry started by my parents, Buford and Babs Adams, in March 1965. That book will be available at the church’s 50th Anniversary celebration next year. With that finished, I am beginning work on a novel. To date, my work has primarily been in non-fiction. It’s a scary proposition to jump genres, yet I think it’s time to branch out. I expect to be lowering my bucket daily as I start this new adventure.
My girl graduated from college this week. The ceremony was in Yankee Stadium, and her family — all natives of the Deep South — flew to New York City to cheer as she walked across the stage and received a diploma from New York University.
We held a celebratory luncheon the afternoon before the ceremony, to which my girl was half an hour late. She nearly missed her own party because she was getting her hair done.
It’s human nature to walk the cobbled streets of memory during the remarkable events of one’s life. But it’s a woman’s nature, I think, to mark memories by what hairdo we had at the time. As we sat in Union Square Café remarking that it was not the first time her hair had made us late for lunch, I thought back upon the history of my girl’s hair.
She came into this world with a head full of it. In fact, we teased her grandfather on the day she was born that she had more hair than he did. When she was a month old, it stood straight up and formed a natural Mohawk that prompted total strangers to ask me how I got her hair to do that.
The truth was, I had never been able to do much with my own mane, and so I had no idea how to handle a little girl’s locks.
Her first haircut happened when she was three months old because it was falling into her big blueberry eyes. Those snips of baby bangs are in a small plastic bag pasted into her baby book.
Her hair is just like her mama’s. Because mine is bad to kink up in the Southern humidity, and because the sheer volume makes it impossible to dry, and mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with it, I kept my hair short in those days. Until she was six, she had a cut similar to my own because that was a style I knew how to handle.
Her daddy once bought her a “hair-styling puppy” at Toys ‘R Us. The stuffed dog was covered in long pink fur, and it came with a pair of pink safety scissors. While her daddy talked on a early-model cell phone in the front seat, the kind that was the size of a hair dryer, she used those safety scissors to cut her little sister’s hair. I was furious with her father. How did he not notice that a haircut was being handed out in the back seat of the car? And what did he think she would do with a pair of scissors?
It was obvious, however, that she would not grow up to be a hair stylist. That haircut took almost a year to grow back.
At the end of her second grade year, my girl announced that she wanted long hair. I was terrified by long hair, but I said, “Okay, you can grow it out as long as you take care of it.”
School pictures tell the story. At first, she was a mini-Medusa, with hair flying in all directions because it was too much for her to handle.
When she was eight, she flipped down the front passenger seat visor to check her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was on the order of the Cowardly Lion’s that morning. Rather than fussing with her hair, though, she turned her head from side to side and uttered a quick, guttural, “Uggh!” followed by, “I HATE school!
I opened my mouth to say, “What’s so bad about school?”
But before I could ask, she blurted out the reason. “The fluorescent lighting makes me look horrible.”
By the fifth grade, she’d learned that going to sleep with her hair still wet meant she woke up looking like Cruella de Ville, and she’d learned how to tame that unruly mane. By the sixth grade, she was asking for highlights.
Tuesday afternoon, when she finally showed up for her graduation lunch, I was struck by her beauty. Her hair, which falls to her elbows, was the color of spun gold. And that night, as she marched across the stage at Lincoln Center in her purple graduation gown, her hair was how I picked her out of the crowd of a thousand Gallatin School graduates.
Last week, a friend who teaches at New York University met my girl for the first time. He sent me a message on Facebook that read, “She’s extremely nice, open and charming. (And adorable). I was glad to meet her. Congrats to you both on her graduating from NYU. You must have done something right.”
Before I had children, I had many different ideas on how to raise them. Now that they’re grown, I can’t claim to know the secret to raising great kids. I still couldn’t tell anyone how to potty train a toddler. And I’m famous with my nieces for now knowing how to fix a girl’s hair, including my own, which, incidentally, is long and in a perpetual ponytail.
Having children, I think, is the ultimate in hair-raising experiences. But watching her march across that stage on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but thinking that, yes, something went beautifully right.
My trainer, Andrew Johnston of Triumph Training, is a smart man. I don’t like to admit to laziness, but I will admit that when Andrew tells me I should or should not be eating something, I don’t bother to check the research. This is because if Andrew says it, he has already read the research and understood it. So call it laziness if you will, but I see listening to Andrew as simply a huge timesaver.
Yesterday, he posted this little gem on his Facebook page: “Food sensitivities? Adding gelatin will help heal the gut and often eliminate or improve reactions when the offending food is eaten.”
I immediately thought about my grandmother, who died nearly thirteen years ago after an excruciating bout with pancreatic cancer. One of her favorite sayings was, “I like (insert food item here), but it doesn’t like me.” The list of foods that she inserted into that blank space was rather lengthy. Grandmom had a funky stomach for all the years I knew her. Jell-O was one food Grandmom loved that unfailingly loved her in return. It never dawned on me back then that she knew something we didn’t know about J-E-L-L-O.
I always thought her love for that wiggly, jiggly dessert had something to do with growing up during the Great Depression. For some reason, I’d assumed that it had been invented around that time. Actually, powdered gelatin was patented in 1845 by a guy named Peter Cooper, who also built the first steam-powered locomotive. In 1897, a cough syrup manufacturer named Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked a gelatin dessert named Jell-O. He sold the brand to Orator Woodward, who began advertising it in magazines as “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” In a stroke of marketing brilliance, Woodward printed Jell-O cookbooks and sent salesmen out with free copies. By 1930, the congealed salad was in vogue, a trend that would last well into the 1950s.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine ran across an old copy of a Jell-O cookbook. We laughed at some of the elaborate congealed salads in the book, and I actually gagged at a few. One had green olives in it. Another had celery and tomato juice. Neither of those had vodka, which might have made them okay.
I’ve lived long enough to see some things that were in style when I was a kid coming back. Apparently, congealed salads and those elaborate Tupperware molds are one of those things. Southern Living magazine’s March 2014 issue devoted eight pages to those wriggling wonders. I can’t help but think that once the mainstream media begins touting the health benefits of gelatin, a new Jell-O cookbook and some fancy molds will pop up in the grocery stores.
Before you run out to the Picadilly for some red Jell-O thinking you’re eating healthy, please understand that Andrew would cringe at the idea of ingesting red dye #40. In fact, he would probably be able to spout off six good reasons you shouldn’t use cherry Jell-O to dye your hair (yes, it’s a thing; my twin nieces have done it). He’s talking about making your own by cooking bones. Or if you can’t stomach the thought of that, Great Lakes Gelatin will sell it to you in powdered form.
Grandmom died twelve days after being diagnosed with that mean cancer. During the awful days and weeks just before her diagnosis, we begged and pleaded with her to eat. One day, she said that she thought she could eat some red Jell-O. Someone in my family rushed to the grocery store and bought several packages of cherry-flavored Jell-O cups.
She wouldn’t touch them. Shaking her head, she said no, not cherry. She could only eat strawberry.
I went to the Publix by my house looking for strawberry-flavored Jell-O cups. They didn’t have any, but they did have the powdered stuff in strawberry, so I bought a few boxes and went home to make strawberry Jell-O, thinking she would never know the difference.
My Grandmom, it turns out, was a sort of Jell-O sommelier. She did know the difference. She ate the strawberry Jell-O, and I like to think it made her feel better for a few brief moments.
After she died, my grandfather asked my sister and me to come help him clean out his attic. We went through several of Grandmom’s old cookbooks that day. They were hilarious. Next to a recipe she’d tried and liked, she would write: “Good.” Just as often, the note next to a recipe would say, “Not good.” Or, as she was often quoted as saying aloud, “Not fit to eat.”
During the late 1970s, the ladies in our church published a cookbook titled Our Daily Bread to raise funds for a missionary. Sadly, Grandmom is only one of several contributors who has since passed away. I have a copy of that cookbook, and I still use it on occasion. I flipped to the salad section today just to see how many recipes for congealed salad are printed in its pages (there are 21), and I came across Grandmom’s favorite recipe. Because it would make her giggle, I raise a Jell-O shot (lime with tequila, of course) in her memory as I pass along her recipe, even though Concord grape is a discontinued flavor, and despite the fact that regular grape Jell-O contains both red dye #40 and Blue #1.
The recipe, as submitted by Glennis Adams:
2-3 oz. Concord grape Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
1 large can pineapple, drained
1 can blueberry pie filling
Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water and add pie filling and pineapple. Let congeal in refrigerator.
8 oz. cream cheese
½ pint sour cream
½ cup sugar
½ cup chopped pecans
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix and put on top of congealed salad.
Cats lost their ambassador to dog people this week, and I lost a good friend. Degas was a Siamese who lived across the street. I’d never much liked cats until Degas came along, and now that old cat has broken my heart.
He introduced himself years ago. Long before I moved to Florida, I came for a weekend visit and was walking off the beach with my mom one morning when this skinny Siamese walked up and started making pitiful noises. “Oh, you poor thing!” I said. “You’re hungry.”
Mom started laughing. “That’s Degas. He makes rounds in the neighborhood begging for food.”
As it turned out, Degas lived directly across the street from the house I eventually bought. I must have made a good impression when we first met because when I bought my house, he began coming over every morning around nine, scooting under my front gate and standing at my door meowing until I let him in. He never stayed more than an hour, and his visits were always the same: Degas following me around the house, sitting on my desk as I worked, and talking the entire time.
He didn’t meow. Degas had a guttural, growl-like “rowr,” its pitch, tone, and volume varying with his mood. He didn’t just make noise. Degas told stories.
I kept treats for him, but in the last few years, he seemed to lose interest in begging for food. Maybe it was because he didn’t have many teeth left. As often as not, he politely refused the treats. He was just stopping by to chat like old friends do.
I moved here permanently in 2010, and Degas was dismayed by the fact that I brought my dogs. I was afraid he would no longer be my friend, but he mostly forgave me. He occasionally came to my door when the dogs weren’t in the yard, but he started spending his days in the alley behind my house. He made friends with the neighbor across the alley, Earl, and liked to stand in the driveway and tell Earl how to wash his car or prune his oleanders. When I walked down the alley – on my way to the beach or mailbox or simply taking the trash can to the street – Degas found me, and we’d tell one another about our day. Sometimes he bitched at me for having dogs, but mostly, I scratched his head while we exchanged pleasantries.
I was friendly with his owners, Katy and Margaret, two middle-aged women who are cousins. They often voiced their concerns about Degas roaming the neighborhood during the day, but Katy said to me more than once, “He’s miserable when we try to keep him in the house. He loves visiting everyone, and people love him. We worry about him, but what can we do?” I told Degas he reminded me of the old Cole Porter song: Give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above, don’t fence me in.
In late February, I was standing in my kitchen, and I heard Degas. I went to the door, but he wasn’t on my front porch. He was standing at the door to his house begging to go inside, and his begging was loud enough that I could hear him all the way across the street. The day was cold and windy, and it was beginning to rain. He sounded pitiful. It was so out of character that it scared me. I called Margaret and Katy. They didn’t answer, so I walked across the street, planning to take the poor guy home with me and get him warm. I rang the doorbell. When no one answered, I reached down to pick him up, and I spotted something in the flower pot by the front door — half of a key sticking out from under a rock. I grabbed the key and tried the deadbolt. The door opened, and Degas sprinted inside.
I’m sure Katy and Margaret were surprised to find Degas inside when they came home from work. I fully intended to tell the ladies what happened, but I didn’t see them for several days, and then I forgot about it.
There was an accident this week, and we lost Degas. Despite the fact that we all watched carefully for him when driving down the alley, no one realized that he couldn’t hear our neighbors’ new electric car coming. He walked in front of that car at a bend in the alley where they couldn’t have seen him.
Later that afternoon, Katy and I talked about how much Degas was loved and how she and Margaret had decided that loving him meant letting him be outside. Yet that choice made it impossible to protect him. “He never wanted to be inside,” she said, crying, and it occurred to me that I should tell her how, just a few weeks ago, he had begged to be inside. But it would have made her sadder, I decided, so I said nothing.
I think they’d prefer the legend. And being the great storyteller he was, I think Degas would prefer it, too.
Send me off forever, but I ask you please, don’t fence me in.