Thursday, January 8, 2009

SIMPLICITY AND SENSE


This morning in one of my e-mail exchanges with writer friend, Isabel Anders, who lives at Sewanee, we talked about how we wished contemporary life embraced more of the qualities of “simplicity and good sense.” I thought about this pervasive phrase (Isabel’s) for a few moments before going to the shelf where I keep desk copies of books I’ve written and began to re-read GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR; A VERSE RETROSPECTIVE OF THE FORTIES. This thin book captured strong feelings I’ve always had about my childhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when American life seemed more “simplistic and sensible.”

When I look at the bottom photograph on the front cover of the book and see the scruffy shoes my sister and I are wearing, I remember how sensible people were about their clothing and shoes in that era, with one pair of shoes per person for the entire year …and a whole lot of polishing going on each night! It was also the day of union suits, awful one-piece undergarments with latch backs on the behinds that my grandmother sent to me, wrapped in special brown paper parcels, from Franklinton, Louisiana (and I was forced to wear until I was 11 years old) because she wasn’t sure my mother dressed me warmly.

Our family was one of the smallest families on Birch Street, but I recall that Mrs. Landry, who lived behind us on Walnut Street, would line up seven pairs of shoes on the dining room table each night and begin her work of repairing the day’s wear and tear on shoe leather. She seemed to enjoy this task of helping her offspring put their "best feet forward," and the finished products gleamed considerably more brightly than the shoes in our family. We polished our own, hurrying through the process with our feet perched on a wooden shoeshine box our father had constructed. Judging from the photos on the front cover of GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, I must have cared less about my shod feet. However, I did care about grades, which you can evaluate from the photo of an old report card that appears on the back cover of the book…and never mind reminding me, as many readers have, that I had one “B” in Arithmetic!

In Baton Rouge, during the forties, we were regarded as city folk, but the city in that time was an overgrown small town, and at noon during the summer, we’d gather around the radio to hear “Orene Mews with the News,” a program that featured notable persons of the week, all of whom we knew personally. Such was the close social life of a city that now has a population in the 100 thousands.

We also spent most of our waking hours playing simple games on the asphalt roads where there were no dirt bikes, three-wheelers, or electronic games – just football, tag, Tin Can, pole vaulting, and, most notably, rubber gun wars for which my father carved handsome wooden guns with clothespins attached to hold the slivers of rubber he had cut from an old inner tube. Our indoor pursuits included eight-person board games as we listened to programs on the old Bendix radio. With regard to the indoor games, one verse that appears in GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR is about those pastimes:

INDOOR GAMES

Our gang waded in city gutters, sailed leaf boats as rain fell,
but sometimes, when lightning struck, went indoors for a spell
to tune in “Let’s Pretend” on the old Bendix,
play checkers, Monopoly, and Pick Up Stix,
long mornings of board games and too much inactivity,
enduring fairy tales while held in indoor captivity,
intermissions by Cream of Wheat, a breakfast food for infants,
waiting for the rain to stop so we could commence
wading in the streets, racing to kick up high splashes,
barefooted, bare-chested, we who usually wore bows and sashes,
until the long whistle of my Dad, standing on the walk,
summoned us to supper and my mother’s nightly talk
about our misbehavior splashing in the street,
even though she preferred her vagabonds to suffer heat
in the out-of-doors so she could lie down and rest
while we had freedom to form gangs, enjoy slugfests.
I was an eleven-year old girl allowed to be that free
until I sprouted breasts and was tackled in a melee,
a blow to my feminine buds sending me to indoor cave,
never again to join in boy games, never again so brave,
forced to listen to “Let’s Pretend,” play games of Monopoly,
to this day, a name I refer to as unbearable Monotony.
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