Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Grandma Moses Book

I moved back to Fairhope in 1988, expecting to live out my days there. My mother was nearing 80 and my husband, 17 years my senior, was having a hard time in retirement and was suffering from a terrible disease: Alcoholism. I thought Fairhope would be a good place for all of us.

The twenty years I lived there proved full of changes for us. I found myself through the 12-Step programs (mostly Al-Anon; but six months in AA was a huge help as well), but my husband didn't. He died at the age of 78. My mother lived many more years and made it to 92. In the meantime, I discovered Fairhope's history through working at the Marietta Johnson Museum, and dedicated myself to the recovery of the School of Organic Education as well. I did the best I could, but the school suffered one of its most traumatic periods during this time. All the while I was watching Fairhope change and savoring my memories of what it once was, and learned its deeper nature. I started this blog and continued writing as constantly as I had all my life; poems, journals, letters--and collaborated with Robert E. Bell on a book about Fairhope memories called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree.

I began to think it would be nice to live out my old age like Grandma Moses, but instead of painting charming primitives I would write novels set in Fairhope in its early days, little word pictures of the kind of people who once moved to the utopian village with an eye to changing the world for the better. Marietta Johnson would be a peripheral character in these books, as would E.B. Gaston, the single tax advocate who founded the town with a goal of demonstrating economic reform, but the books would be about other people and their adventures in the village in bygone days. Fairhope didn't last for me after both my husband and my mother died there, but it haunts me in my new home and I still have a need to write about it.

I wrote The Fair Hope of Heaven, another non-fiction book about Fairhope and some of its eccentrics and nonconformists, which I had to self-publish and has just about made its nut back. It's still around, at the local Fairhope bookstore Page & Palette and on amazon dot com. I tried to place it in independent bookstores in faraway places like Montgomery but was told that nobody in Montgomery had any interest in Fairhope. I've given and sold copies to friends all over the world who never heard of Fairhope and they love the book, but they are friends so they're probably just being nice. I thought it was kind of a Lake Woebegone Days with a single-tax slant, but publishers think otherwise.

Now I'm giving fiction a try. My first Grandma Moses book has the working title of That Was Tomorrow, but is my second choice of a working title and it too may be changed. I'm in the first rewrite stage, and damned if it doesn't read sorta like a Grandma Moses painting--quaint and maybe a bit awkward, but with heart and an old-fashioned style, and a certain sense of the place. I tried to marginalize Mrs. Johnson, but she has become a major character in spite of my best efforts. I may cut a great deal before an agent or an editor sees it, but I do not plan to self publish under any circumstances. (Famous last words)

Grandma Moses painted her first picture at the age of 78, because it was easier than baking a Christmas gift for the postman. When her work was discovered years later in the window of the local drugstore (at $3 and $5, depending on the size of the work), she was lucky that the art dealer who snapped them all up didn't say, "Very good work, but it would never be of interest to anybody outside of Hoosik Falls!"

Maybe I'll be lucky this time. My website tells all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Living in a Magical Place

Photo by Susan Stein

I just saw a movie about life as it once was, as it was conceived by its Creator to be, and as it is. This is the profound The Tree of Life, which got me thinking about my own book.

The Tree of Life was set in a little Texas town in the 1950's; my book, That Was Tomorrow, was set in Fairhope in 1922. There is not really any similarity between the two works, but as an author perhaps I can be forgiven the indulgence of imagining my little novel being made into a little Indie movie one of these days. In my mind I've cast a few of the leading players, and I did that as I wrote. The hardest part of my movie project would be to recreate the Fairhope of 1922. I suspect it would have to be built from scratch on a Hollywood back lot.

The Fairhope of today really doesn't look anything like the one of 1922. In those days the population was under 500, and the houses were literally few and far between. The streets were not paved, there were few automobiles, and there were few shops. There were several guest homes, hotels, and hostelries, as Fairhope was a retreat for intellectual Northerners in the winter. There was a pier stretching out into Mobile Bay, where steamers docked after ferrying people from the city. There was a main street, Fairhope Avenue, and it was crossed by Section Street. At that corner were some of the businesses in town--a pharmacy, a harness shop, a general store, and next door a millinery and gift shop. As you walked down the hill--no sidewalks, just packed dirt--there was the office of the local weekly newspaper, The Courier, the doctor's office, and then, on Church Street was The Gables, a large wooden hotel run by Capt. and Mrs. Jack Cross. A few more guest houses, a cable car running down and up the hill to the bay, and the Colonial Inn on the corner of the street running parallel to the bay and Cliff Drive. Cliffs and gullies. Satsuma trees everywhere. Little kids climbing trees and playing in the gullies.

The Tree of Life was filmed in Smithville, TX. So was Hope Floats, and apparently many other movies with a nostalgic setting. For a moment during the film, when I saw a shred of Spanish moss on the trees, I thought it might make a nice backdrop for That Was Tomorrow. But really not. When they walked through town it was a typical, town-square-in-the-middle, layout from days past. In Fairhope there was Knoll Park, azaleas, wisteria, and all the beautiful beach parks. My characters have a number of cookouts on the beach.

Sonny Brewer, author of The Poet of Tolstoi Park, a novel set in roughly the same place and time as my book, said they considered Bayou La Batre, AL when it was under consideration for a movie. How they'd get the sun to go down in the East I don't know, but in Hollywood, all things are possible.

As a matter of fact, I'm still in dreamland myself. The book has been sent to three friends for evaluation of the first draft. If the reaction is good I still have a lot of work to do, depending on their suggestions. If the reaction is universally not good, the book project will be set aside indefinitely. Probably I'll become a more active blogger again.

In the meantime, if you can think of any location that's a little like Fairhope would have been in 1922, let me know.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spring in Fairhope, 1922

This is an excerpt from the novel That Was Tomorrow, which takes place in Fairhope in 1921-22. It centers around the bohemian community of Fairhope of those days, particularly the teachers at the School of Organic Education. The protagonists all moved to the town as disciples of Marietta Johnson, who was a world-famous proponent of the progressive education movement, and had founded her school as a demonstration of that educational theory. "The Sieve" is the nickname the two young women, Amelia and Avery, have for the cottage they are renting, which has a very leaky roof.

It was still March, but Fairhope was already in the full bloom of spring. Days were sunny, the sky was light blue with little puffs of clouds here and there, and flowers opened their faces on footpaths, roadsides, and in the trees. The first blossoms had appeared as splashes of mauve on redbud trees, but the neighboring dogwoods, with their layered branches now shelves for their white four-leaf blooms, completed the look of lacy color dotting the town.
Years before, the locals had gathered in a civic group to plant azalea bushes around the perimeter of Knoll park. At at this time of year the big, raggedly uneven bushes came into bloom all at once, as if blanketed in pink. Color was accented by large azaleas in white, and there were shades of pink that bloomed in sequence, finishing with the stylish deep, almost red shade known as “Pride of Mobile.”
A wisteria vine, planted on a magnolia tree adjacent to the school’s library, broke into a profusion of lavendar blossoms which exuded a heady sweet fragrance into the breeze. The vine actually connected two trees, and would one day grow big enough to climb on; already it provided a seat between the trees, and the flowers opened with a sweet, springtime smell that would be unforgettable to generations of school children.
Although the temperature usually hovered in the low 80s, humidity was not so high as usual, and it felt at if one could inhale spring itself. The air had a lightness to it that seemed to transfer to the mood of people.
More and more often, Jim Holloway was a visitor to The Sieve. As his romantic relationship with Avery grew more intense, Amelia was more comfortable avoiding the intimate vision of them together, leaving the place to them to go to watch the sunset on the pier, then take a walk around town, sometimes with a book, sometimes taking a notebook to write down ideas for class projects. Some evenings she spent at The Gables, talking with Capt. Cross, who could answer many questions, particularly about history. He recommended books to her, and lent her his copy of Tolstoy’s short stories.
This night, when Amelia came into the parlor at The Gables, Idella Cross presented with an envelope, with her name on it, in Maxwell Taylor’s unmistakable handwriting.
“Mr. Taylor asked me to give this to you,” she said.
“Max? How strange!” Amelia said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think strange,” Mrs. Cross said simply, and walked away, into the kitchen.
“My Dear Amelia,” read the letter. “I must talk to you. Please meet me at the northeast corner of Knoll Park, Magnolia and Bayview, at 8 P.M. Maxwell Taylor.”
Amelia was somewhat anxious reading this. There could be some bad news that Max wanted to reveal, or some personal situation. Perhaps he was going to be called away for a family emergency, or perhaps he was in some sort of trouble at the school. It was half an hour before the appointed time and there was nothing for Amelia to do but bide her time at The Gables until then.
Capt. Cross was working on a Mozart sonata on the piano, and she had a Rousseau book to read about the nature and needs of the child. She chose her favorite chair in The Gables’ main room, a threadbare old carpet rocker which had the smell of years of musty dust to it. All the same, the book was hardly relaxing, and Capt. Cross’ struggle with Mozart did little to ease her tension.
It was hardly a five-minute walk to the spot designated by Max’s missive. He would be coming from the cottage at Bancroft and Pine Street where he rented a room. She decided to walk down Fairhope Avenue to the Knoll Park corner. It was dark now, a night not unlike when she and Max walked this way to Marie Howland’s, when she got her first look at the little town illuminated by Southern moonlight.
Max was standing near a dogwood tree at the edge of the park. When she got close enough, he said, “Good to see you.”
“Hello, Max.”
What was he going to tell her? Tree frogs were deafening for a moment.
“I see you got my letter,” he said, with a smile curling one corner of his mouth.
There are people, she thought, whose faces are simply not designed for smiling. He fixed her with his eyes, although they seemed to be trembling in a strange and inexplicable way. All she knew to do was look back at him firmly, hoping a steady gaze would relieve the anxiety he seemed to be feeling.
“Yes, although the postal service might be disappointed at the loss of revenue.”
I never thought of that.”
Again there was silence but for the frogs.
“I thought this would be a nice place to meet.”
“And so it is. The night reminds me of our first meeting, walking Marie Howland home.”
He nodded, and clearly began to think about that night.
“This is different,” he said after a pause. “That was before I loved you.”
“Oh, Max!”
“Now let me speak.”
She took a breath and nodded.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. It was not something I was seeking. ‘It’ found me instead. I’m kind of a solitary fellow, pretty much independent and I’ve always been happy with that—depends upon what you mean by happy, I guess. I was content with it; I didn’t expect more—this damned town—”
“Maybe it’s all these flowers,” she said.
“Flowers and springtime, is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“Well, let me tell you something then. It’s not flowers and springtime! It’s—it’s a wistful scarecrow at Halloween, a pair of eyes glowing in the reflection of firelight, the music of a laugh at a folk tale. It’s delicate hands comforting a weeping child, and feet skipping with children to a tune for a pageant.”
He was warming up now.
It’s camellias and roses for Christmas on a warm day. It’s sunsets on the pier. It’s ‘A Long Long Trail A-Winding.’ It’s the accidental grasp of a hand doing an English country dance. It’s the scent of pine and wisteria in the breeze. It’s this damn, irresistible crazy quilt of a town—but most of all it’s you, my beautiful Amelia. Oh, dear God, let me say that at last. My beautiful Amelia. Okay.” He took a breath, then he launched into an imitation of Ethel Barrymore. “That’s all there is.”
“There isn’t any more?” Amelia picked up on the imitation, which was current in the day, lines in a play the actress had spoken years before. Maxwell at his best was all about the theatre.
“No?” he said, making it a question, imploring her to take it as more than he had said.
“That’s a great deal, Maxwell.”
“Yes. It’s profound. Not so deep as a well, maybe, nor so broad as a church
“Now you’re quoting.”
“Well, at least I quote from the best.”
“I liked when you were being original.”
“You did?” Now he looked at her, hopeful for the first moment.
“It’s like being in a play.”
“There are times when life is,” Max said. Now he was staring at her, trying to fathom her soul.
“This is new to me,” she said. She was not sure how to capture in words the confusion of feeling that swept over her. But she knew she had to say something.
“Dear Max.”
He stepped over to her and put his arms around her. Amelia did not resist. She knew he was going to kiss her and she would not resist.
The world of sunsets and wisteria blossoms and firelight and folk tales came crashing about her as she responded to his gentle, long kiss. There was a crescendo of tree frogs when he stepped back at last and looked into her face, still with his arms around her. She was unsteady on her feet. Caught in the moment, she could not speak. Her mind was flooded with conflicting thoughts and she felt stirrings and tingling throughout her body that she had never felt before.
All at once Max was laughing.
“You dropped your books,” he said. He picked them up from the patch of grass.“Ah, Tolstoy!” he said, looking at the top book. “How appropriate!”
“Can you blame me?” she said. “About dropping them I mean, not about the books. I feel—a little foolish.”
“Ah no, not foolish, I hope. I did my best—”
“I didn’t mean that. You did very well.”
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“I think you are more accustomed to being in plays than I,” she said.
“You know this isn’t a play.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s real life.”
“Please, Max,” Amelia said. “This is going to take me some time.”
“Oh, ‘please,’ yourself,” he said. “Do not think so much. Do not make this a problem.
I kissed you in the park, I said some things. You liked it.”
“I shall walk you home now,” he said. “And then I’ll dance all the way to my own humble abode. Then tomorrow…”
“That’s the one one-word question to which there is no answer,” said Max.
The two walked up Bayview, through the big old oak trees, both of them moved by the moon as it shone through the Spanish moss. He held her hand.
“Avery and Jim are at The Sieve,” she told him.
“That’s good, I think. They are at The Sieve, and you and I are walking down the street. Life goes on.”
She wasn’t sure if Maxwell understood the significance of Jim being with Avery.
“They are a couple.”
“Well, yes, I had hopes. Jim has had his eye on her for months, even before the
departure of the volatile Sarah.”
“I hadn’t seen that,” Amelia said.
He said nothing.
“I shall drop you at the door,” Max said. “I don’t know that I’m able to take any more excitement tonight.”
She turned to him as they reached the door and he leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“Promise me,” he said, “that you won’t think too much.”
“Not an easy promise to keep,” she said.
“Sure it is. If your mind races, just insert thoughts about Tolstoy and Rousseau.”
“And Marietta Johnson?”
“Well, Marietta Johnson too—but I think the distant gods are more comforting than those close to home.”
As she climbed the stairs, Amelia heard his voice in her head, repeating, “Tomorrow is the one-word question to which there is no answer,” and she felt the memory of the kiss suffuse her body with tingling hope.
When she got into her bed a few minutes later, she had not noticed whether or not Jim was still in the house. She wrapped her arms around her spare pillow and wished for her old teddy bear.

That Was Tomorrow is available at, Barnes &, iBooks, and from my website.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Looking for Mikey

It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I could have skipped the memorial. I knew plenty of people would be there and that I would not have been missed. But when I considered other options, my inner child kept prodding me, saying that she wanted to say goodbye to Mikey. I had to go.

Mikey Jones was a man about town in a unique way; he owned the town and lived in every inch of it. It would seem that everybody in Fairhope knew him—and loved him deeply. That might not be easy to imagine if you never met Mikey, but if you had met him once, it was perfectly clear.

Mikey radiated joy in everything he did. It was as natural to him as breathing. To say he was friendly isn’t saying enough; he made a friend of everyone, it was his job. Once he told me that he found it funny that people assumed it was his only job, walking around town and smiling at people, doing odd jobs for them, hugging them, making them laugh. In fact, he said, he was in the oil business and traveled all the time; it was just that when he was in Fairhope he was not at work and he could do what he loved. What he loved was life itself, and people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors. He was one of the world’s great huggers, also one of the world’s great smilers and caregivers. He cared about people more than anyone I’ve ever known.

At his memorial service, his business partner spoke, saying he had never known anyone like Mikey, and thanked God he had had the privilege of his long association with him. He made the congregation laugh when he told us that he’d never known anybody who would get to know every person who was with him on a short elevator ride. I had never been in an elevator with him, but do not doubt that for a minute. And we’re not talking about a superficial acquaintance either; he was as likely to get a name and information about a person he met in an elevator, and remember it when he saw him years later, as anywhere else.

Gina Lanaux said in her eulogy, “Mikey left a legacy of love, inspiration and passion. His many friends called him the ‘unofficial mayor of Fairhope.’ He had an insatiable appetite for good food, women of all shapes and sizes, travel, gardening, restoration of old houses and the preservation of all things Fairhope. Everything he did was about his love of life, his love of people, and he shared his positive energy with everyone.” She pointed out that every one of us in the crowded church had a wealth of Mikey stories, and I knew that, having two or three of my own, she was surely right about that. I said to my neighbor on the pew, “She nailed it,” and she, shaking her head responded, “She sure nailed it.”

He was ten years old when he moved to Fairhope from Barbados. He befriended Tommy Yeager, who shared at his memorial descriptions of life as a boy with Mikey as a friend in the most Tom Sawyer kind of way. This new boy had come from an island Tommy had never even heard of; he taught him how to explore the bay in ways he never could imagine. They swam in the bay grass and checked out the fish. They made logs into missiles they could ride through the water. Tommy was proud that he knew a few things Mikey didn’t—but Mikey caught on quick. “I had a way of finding anything we needed,” Tommy related. “He would mention wanting something and before he thought of it again, I would appear with it. What I knew was the schedule for curbside garbage pickup, which became our free yard sale.” This scavenger talent, no doubt, was a source for adventures in creativity for the two for years to come.

Girls who knew Mikey as a teenager remember that joyous charisma. When he surfed or swam he was at one with the water. He cut a dashing figure. Grace, balance and athleticism came naturally to him, and girls came naturally to him too. Once he made up his mind, however, he settled on a perfect mate, Dee Wilson of New Orleans, who married Mikey and took to his life—and loved it with him.

Tears were flowing in that beautiful church, tears of joy that we had known him and tears of recognition of how much would be missing from Fairhope now that he was gone. He had suffered a crucible for the past several years, having fought a painful personal battle with cancer, endured chemotherapy and gotten a little better for a time, and then relapsed for the inevitable end. A valiant soul and an extraordinary lover of life itself, he was as adept at facing death.

Thinking about Mikey will always be a source of strength for those of us who were blessed by his acquaintance. After the service, we were invited to join the family for refreshments. I debated with myself about whether to go and again my inner child chimed in. “Mikey would say, ‘Do anything you want,’” came the voice inside me. I went to the luncheon.

With any new problem we might have to face, we can think how Mikey would have handled it, and we will have our answers. It makes me smile to think of that.