Thursday, December 6, 2012

School Days

Baton Rouge High School opened fifteen years after the Civil War and finally relocated for the last time on Government Street in the late 1920’s. By mid-century, it is easy to imagine James Dean coming down the front steps of the Late Gothic Revival main building dressed in jeans and white t-shirt with a cigarette behind one ear. Turning to his left, he would saunter along the sidewalk through the shade of huge oaks, heading toward his ride parked behind the school. Of course, really, earlier in the day—during first period—he would have been sent to the principal’s office and maybe expelled for the day—or at the very least—told to go home and change from jeans to appropriate pants and to change his t-shirt for good measure. He would have been asked to put the cigarette in his pocket and told he could smoke it during lunch recess in the Bullpen, which was actually under the bleachers facing the oval track and the grassy area in the middle where the football team practiced every hot afternoon. Cool Mr. Dean, the future icon of disillusioned youth everywhere, would have passed an exit door from the one-balcony auditorium with a wood floor stage where Elvis and Faron Young played in May, 1955, a mere five months before the Porsche Spyder sports car Dean would be heading toward crashes and kills him near Cholame, California.

Eight years after Mr. Dean takes his imaginary stroll, the school campus looks pretty much the same—maybe the oaks grown some in height and girth, the same bleachers and another bunch of boys in the Bullpen under them to escape the direct heat, the pattern on the ground around them like sun through enormous blinds, many of the cars in the parking lot probably now the same model year as the famous Porsche. For all the studens (still no jeans to be seen), sitting in classrooms with tall windows during long days of study, they want to be hip like dead Mr. Dean and pretty like Natalie Wood and sensitive like Sal Mineo, but they also want to be cool, literally, for they are always hot since air conditioning won’t be installed until 13 years after they graduate. No Negroes in desks beside them, some students slightly more aware and the others only vaguely from parental whisperings that there was a bus boycott ten years earlier that gave Martin Luther King the blueprint for the Montgomery bus boycott. While marches for Civil Rights are taking place in the city around them—primarily by Southern University students—it is a time of innocence for most, uninvolved and not knowing, more important the day to day tests and romantic maneuverings and the scandal of Mrs. Dugas’ 10th grade daughter dropping out of school because she is pregnant.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Living in Louisiana

And here we are again, four years after Gustav took down 25% of the canopy in Baton Rouge and seven years after Katrina flooded New Orleans and killed almost 2,000 people, here we are again with that helpless feeling again of hearing sirens in the distance of fire trucks racing down streets nearby and watching wind and rain out of windows and sliding patio doors, the trees bending unnaturally and limbs flying off and the thump of them hitting the ground and leaves swirling and littering the streets and yards like it is winter and time to rake into piles not brown but green with recent life.
Unlike other recent hurricanes and with winds not quite as high, Isaac is so slow moving that the destruction may be worse in some areas, the winds and flooding water grinding south Louisiana down by its stationary persistence.
In this age of instant communication (before many lose power) there are Facebook posts on supplies gathered, the inevitable lists of alcohol purchased to last for the duration of closed stores, discussions of the impact of cancelled football games (for many hurricanes seem to hit the last week of August), posts from people who once lived here and now expressing concerns from states far away, and one post from a woman in New Jersey who once lived in and still calls New Orleans home, her post letting everyone know that her friend was tired of the woman’s post about her concerns for family and could not understand why people still lived in this part of the country, that friend showing her ignorance by not stopping to think that all parts of the country experience disasters, natural and man-made. Why would anyone want to live in Manhattan, someone responded, when planes sometimes crash into tall buildings?
The woman in New Jersey vented in a long post exactly why south Louisiana—New Orleans in particular—is so special, and, finally, halfway down in her Facebook rant about her friend’s utter lack of understanding and compassion, she hit upon exactly why people stay and endure whatever comes in this part of the country: it is home.
     No matter if there are hurricanes spinning off deadly tornados or straight-line summer thunderstorms that knock trees down quickly, no matter what forces align and threaten the house occupied, there are pets buried in the backyard and relatives in the cemetery down the road. It is football on the weekends and tailgate parties with good friends that take place near the stadium or in the back yard. It is also a heritage of place given voice by Louisiana writers imparting a sense of family and history—whether that history is ground blood-soaked or merely littered with storm debris.  It is simply home, the place of growing up and learning the hard truths of living anywhere. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Amanda knew at an early age that she would kill herself. It wasn’t a thought that particularly concerned her but one of quiet recognition that the day would come. She lived her life with that quiet knowledge, growing up loved enough and bright enough for good grades in school and getting a college degree with easy grace she knew she would never use because of how it would all end, the year and manner to be determined. What did surprise her though as she lay on the bed with the gun beside her and naked with makeup on and hair brushed and shiny was not that she was only a good and competent dancer (she had long ago realized that), that she couldn’t have a career doing it, not the months and two years of traveling the West waiting tables and dancing in burlesque and strip clubs to make ends meet, the surprise now that the end was near at age 24 was not any of that but one of location. Not so much Albuquerque, the city for the first few years humming with possibility since there were so many dance clubs with fun people learning the steps or perfecting routines of blues dancing, the swing, Latin jazz, always parties at the clubs or rented spaces, the dancers in costumes and body paint with wild abandon like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, strings of white Christmas lights in loops along the walls, draped over the piano, the lights sweeping the dance floor and the thumping music as partners also, the surprise now for Amanda not so much the city straddling the Rio Grande but the end coming in her small Komfort Travel Trailer parked to the side of Billy’s driveway, an extension cord from her friend’s house snaking through tall trash-strewn grass and weeds. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Death Dealing

Nights after my father has been in the woods on his day off, he knocks his muddy boots against the back steps and the wooden sound, quick and dull, always precedes his entrance into the house. My father pulls the squirrels out of the back of his hunting vest one at a time and tosses them on the newspaper spread out on the kitchen floor by my mother as soon as she heard his car in the driveway, saying as she layers the paper, Talmadge and his mess, my father tossing the squirrels on the paper, dealing dead and stiff and cold creatures instead of cards. There is no sign on most of them of having been shot down from the tops of oak trees, the hair on their tails when he arranges them in a row the only thing still lifelike about them. A beer and sharp hunting knife at hand, he settles down on a low stool and picks one up, his hand and the dead squirrel moving up and down to gauge the weight of it before he pinches up the skin and fur on the stomach and makes an incision large enough for two fingers.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Christmas Collage

The first Christmas after my father dies is rough. Dead not even a month, all the usual trappings of the season have a hollowness in them. All the good will among relatives is sincere but tinged with loss and a sense of defeat, a sense that a door has been violently flung open and something allowed in that is unspeakable—for there is not talk of remember when, no he was a good man and did the best he could for all of us, no spoken love expressed or the ache of absence, and certainly no fifty-eight was too Goddamn young to die. And when eyes do meet, the acknowledgment of feelings and knowing all things have changed comes with a slight lifting of eyebrows, a slight tightening of lips in something less than a smile.
But we carry on and avoid the obvious and eat good food and talk of inconsequential things and do what we can for my mother, the bravest one in the room. It is when the keys to the old Volkswagen my father used for work—trips to and from the docks of the Exxon plant—it is when those keys are given to Dennis, the oldest grandson, that emotions begin surfacing.
The gifts I give my mother and brothers and their wives are 25 photographs of my father, three framed collages of his life: as the only child before his brothers are born held in the arms of Papa Cothern and him next to my grandmother and all three standing in the dirt yard in front of their farmhouse; photographs of my father as a schoolboy, a freckled Mississippi Huck Finn; of him older and lanky in a basketball uniform with a ball held high over his head; one of him and my mother posed in the side yard against the Bernardo Street house; a photo in a pith helmet in the wooden bateau he built, the 10 HP purple Mercury engine on the transom pushing him up the Amite River toward his catfish lines; one of him the previous Christmas in his recliner, his jaw cocked to one side as he opens a present.
When the Christmas paper is torn on the framed collages by all at the same time, when the rips are large enough to reveal some of the photographs, the emotions come with words from choked voices and there are no dry eyes around the Christmas tree and the white tissues suddenly appearing in the hands of my mother and sister-in-laws are flags of surrender.

Friday, May 4, 2012


When Jennifer is seizuring in the hospital while in a coma, when her body is bucking and then going rigid, repeating that awful pattern again and again, I do not remember in that moment of Laurie doing the same in the 4th grade, age 9, the jolt like an electric shock when Dee screams from the girl’s bedroom. Laurie has fallen between the twin beds and Dee is trying to lift her up without success and screaming what is happening to my daughter God help me what is happening? I grab Laurie and carry her in a scramble to the car, Dee driving wildly, me in cutoff overalls without even a shirt on, some vision for the hospital nurses of a redneck disturbed out of a nap on a sunny afternoon, barreling down Essen Lane to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, talking all the time to Laurie, who keeps trying to open her eyes but only her eyelids fluttering, thinking if I can get her to wake up that everything will be okay.

So it does not occur to me that Jen’s seizure is like Laurie’s, life repeating itself and making no sense in the chaos of the moment. For Laurie, after a CAT scan, it is a subtle abnormality in one squiggly brain wave, some slight difference in the pattern signifying a convulsive disorder and no longer called epilepsy. The pediatrician for both girls, Dr. Ben Thompson, puts Laurie on a daily dose of Phenobarbital and it evidently works (never another seizure) until Laurie finally stops taking it after high school, deciding herself that it is no longer needed.
The seizuring experience is so much the same for both daughters, Laurie’s less severe and life-threatening and of shorter duration, and it surprises me Jen’s episode doesn’t recall the other until now because they are the same in one respect. The worry of the unknown and waiting for tests, each time whether pushing through the doors to see Laurie in the Children’s Ward with colorful walls and painted children at play, whether opening the door to Jennifer’s room each time, both are moments to wonder and feel overwhelmed because sickness and disease and the death of a child is the absolute worse of human experience for helpless parents.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Inheritance of Images

An inheritance of images piled haphazardly
in the suitcase with worn corners,
roaches chewing their way
into the hoard of negatives and photographs,
nesting next to those images of grays
and stark whites and blacks like smudges of charcoal.
All those photographs whose tones have faded
like a pile of slippery fish losing their color,
still stored in that suitcase like random statements,
no doubt curling from the heat,
needing to be flattened and then straightened
in order of exposure like facts in a story.

The last time at the old house in Walker
I pull the suitcase from under the bed,
being brave enough to open it, finding
myself sometime later, elbows on knees,
each hand holding an irregular stack,
becoming aware in the fading light
that no one alive can date all these statements,
can over the paralyzing randomness,
the piercing stillness of these lively images.

Opening the old brown suitcase
is acknowledging long ago everydayness,
flinging open long closed doors and windows,
seeing broken fingernails along sealed cracks,
the feeling of someone approaching,
bringing years tough and septia-washed,
the creak of imagined footfalls in the hallway
like a jolt from bad wiring on a Christmas tree.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Christmas Eve, 1993

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Christmas Eve, 1993

   Jen is restless, back under the surface, finally quieting before dawn. An early morning trip home, a shower, thinking about the two hours yesterday that Jen surfaced and treaded water, looking around at all of us in the room, anxiety attacking constantly. I don’t crawl into bed like I want after showering but drop by Ronnie McCallum’s for a quick visit then on out to Laurie’s. While waiting for her before going to my mother’s, I crawl under a blanket on the couch and doze. Have to laugh when I am startled awake by the sound of an IV machine on Days of Our Lives.
   The trip out to Walker to eat gumbo and visit family while watching the kids tear open presents doesn’t last long. Not like previous all day affairs when all of us get together and spend the entire evening laughing and reminiscing only about the good times, my father feeding the dressing to the dogs, Dee and I in the yard putting a trampoline together in ten degree weather, our fingers sticking to the circular metal, trying to stretch cold springs that give only slightly; and on Christmas Eve longer ago, sometimes my father and I fish, or he, Wayne, Willie perhaps, maybe his son, Dennis, will squirrel hunt early in the morning, the mist rolling close to the ground, the anticipation of presents to come the true Christmas gift.

   Visitors all day long. Jen is much shallower, as Dr. Rogers once said, aware of all noises, movements in the room, greetings and touches from family and friends. For a few moments she emerges again, but her disoriented look which should be heartening is only heartbreaking.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


   Today a lifelong friend visiting either for two weeks or two years posted on his blog ( about the “feeling of being lost at home” when one returns to long absent youthful haunts. As I commented on the post, not that I ever take my homeplace for granted, but there is always a sense of personal renewal and appreciation when shown and described with other eyes.
   Have a look at my friend’s fine writing and get a peek at the patio where friends are entertained and afternoons are spent with a cold beer and the sounds of birds and the splash of the waterfall making music to accompany thoughts both large and small.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bliss Stations

   With a nod to Joseph Campbell, there are two Bliss Stations in my life: weekend mornings, getting a cup of coffee and getting back into bed and reading for an hour; and the time in front of the laptop arranging the puzzle pieces of language into my own song. One is absolutely Heaven, the other sometimes short of that.

   Writing is always tough and sometimes made more so if the subject is personal. Working on a memoir about growing up in south Louisiana, about standing at my daughter’s hospital window and looking over the old neighborhood, aware of what went on down there and aware of what was being played out in the room behind me, my daughter critically ill and in a coma from viral encephalitis. As tough as it was to do, keeping a journal during those dark days kept me sane, literally. And now, dealing with all that again, I keep a copy of Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion nearby to remind me that writing always includes bravery.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Journal / Wakeup

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Thursday December 23, 1993

   2:45 p.m.
   Jen comes crashing to the surface.
   Literally bolting upright. Eyes wide open. Coughing. Sucking in a deep breath. The bubble of the coma showering around her, long dark hair plastered to her head, the oxygen line and stomach PEG and IV tubes running down around her like water.

   (Flashes of the trach dislodging.)

   Panic, immediately, anxiousness. Shying away like a wounded animal when we approach to stroke and talk and tell her what is happening. Jen keeps looking around, at us, the room, her arms, the door, the stone dropped into her new consciousness (forever different from her life before) rippling anxiety across her face.

   Dee grabs my arm, says, I think we just had a giant wakeup.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Journal / The Fabric of Time

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Sunday December 19, 1993

   Everyone rests for a change. Good to see Jen looking comfortable. She dries up after the tube is taken out of her nose. Sinuses were drowning her, producing so much mucus her body couldn’t cope. Her lungs are clearing also. Bill Scott, the Respiration Therapist, says the change from one day to the next is remarkable.

Wednesday December 20, 1993

   Dr. Wen, who is scheduled to do an angiogram, comes by to explain the procedure. A tube is inserted in one of the large arteries in Jen’s leg; up, up to her brain where dye is released (150cc) and then x-rays are taken. He explains risks: 5% chance of complications: plaque flaking off inside of the artery causing a blood clot; possible reaction to the dye; breathing complications (which Jen certainly doesn’t need). Thinking it best not to put Jen through more procedures just to rule out a long shot, seeing if she has a connective tissue disease narrowing blood vessels, (what about the diagnosis of encephalitis?), we tell Dr. Wen to cancel the test. Later, Dr. Rogers agrees the procedure can wait.

   My mother stays with Jen while I go to LSU for the first time in weeks. Dee is at her own doctor’s appointment. They do another EEG while we are gone and the results tonight are encouraging: 6 to 7 peaks in the scale where 8 peaks are normal. Jen had 3 peaks last week. Tears come easily and the fear of expecting too much.

   Jen is moving more tonight, coughing up lots of junk through the trach tube. Oxygen monitor keeps alarming, producing even more anxiety.

Thursday December 21, 1993

   The troops come at 9:30 a.m. and haul Jen on to the stretcher, get portable oxygen bottle, rolling stand for her IV’s, and away we go to the surgical waiting room, waiting for PEG tube surgery by Dr. Howell scheduled at noon. No one knows why we are there so early. Back to her room, waiting, more monitor alarming, longing for some balance:  stomach PEG in for the nourishment she needs desperately now, central line for all the IV’s so her bruised and collapsed veins can mend, some stabilization so she can begin the long climb back.

   Troop movements again, later than scheduled.
   Dee and I sit in the surgical waiting room, feeling so much anxiety it is impossible to voice our fears. Each procedure, setback, infection, is standing on the edge of a precipice, eyes closed, toes over the edge, the high wind of no control roaring, pushing, making steps forward the only option. At 2:10 p.m. Dr. Howell comes into the waiting room and says the surgery went fine, no problems, adding that Jen’s illness is tragic. Amazing how many other people at the hospital know about the circumstances of Jen’s illness; not just the nurses who monitor her, give shots, check vital signs, not just the Aids who change the bed, wash her, deal with the excrement when she does manage to have a bowel movement, not the doctors who breeze in for a moment, or the ones performing various surgeries to combat problems, but people on the fringes, nurses on other floors, other doctors, people visiting other patients that we have no contact with, all somehow know of Jen’s struggle, the dark battle now with an encephalopathy no one knew about while she wandered the halls of BHU, hallucinating, pulling her hair out, wanting the children released.

Wednesday December 22, 1993

   A good night. No complications from the stomach PEG. Doze a few times until 4 a.m. while Dee manages to sleep several hours. Home for a shower and a couple of hours of sleep. Hear the telephone ring but can’t get to it in time. Think of calling the hospital but drift away before I do. Wake up after 10 a.m. and call. Dee says she called around 5 a.m. to tell me Jen opened her eyes. Not the first time that’s happened, the vacant stare, the distance from anything visible in her dark pupils, but still encouraging because we want it to be.
   Back to the hospital at noon. Dee leaves to rest at her apartment. A fairly quiet afternoon: suctioning the trach tube occasionally, talking to Jen, touching her, stroking, patting her hands, willing the words to draw her out, watching the oxygen monitor, the BlankeTrol gauges. Blood pressure and pulse are up in the afternoon. Anne comes in and starts Jen’s liquid meal through the stomach PEG, the pale green fluid is the same color as the paint on so many walls in medical offices and hospitals. Jen opens one glazed eye for a few seconds, long enough for me to ask her is she’s just checking things out.

   Cold, rainy, sleety.
   Leave at 4 p.m. for errands and when I get back Dee and Dawn are washing Jen’s hair with a dry shampoo product. Sean from Respiration does trach care, followed by one of the nurses with a suppository. Since the tracheostomy, Jen has more moments when she appears to be awake, but she looks so frightened, lost, posturing now with facial contortions and trembling legs from staticy commands her brain is sending. Heart rate up to 150 plus which raises the anxiety level in us. Keep expecting the other shoe to drop.
   Dr. Stewart, in another fuzzy outfit, matching jacket and hat, mentions during her rounds that the next stage for Jennifer is a rehabilitation unit of some sort. Seems a bit premature to us but Jen’s illness has spiraled far past Stewart’s abilities to handle. It is Dr. Meadors we depend on and who, we are told, charted that he would decide when it is time to move Jen.
   Long after dark, Dina Smith comes in to visit, arms loaded with bags: a musical stocking, a musical doormat, a small Christmas tree, ornaments, icicles. Hal just can’t make himself come to the hospital, she tells us, seeing Jen like she is would devastate him.

Thursday December 23, 1993

   A long night of posturing. Seems so painful to Jen, her body so out of control.
   Later in the morning, Jen is “awake”--coughing up clear mucus through the trach tube (our favorite subject)--when Stewart comes in again and sees Jen with her eyes open and legs churning.
   Has she talked at all?
   (Virtually impossible with a tracheostomy.)
   Jennifer, do you want to talk to us?
   Jen shakes her head and Stewart is impressed enough with the response to relate the story to Denise who comes in to stop the beeping IV.
   Posturing is less this morning but Physical Therapy decides to bring splints to put on Jen’s hands and feet to hold them in a more normal position, to keep the writhing and stretching from damaging ligaments.
   Aunt Vivian calls. Flowers from Tracey and Sharon.

   Home for a couple of hours then out to LSU to deposit my check and get some cash before the holidays. Back to the hospital mid-afternoon. My mother is visiting.
   In so many ways it is a day like most others recently: carrying on and dealing with the constant monitoring of machines and infections and bodily functions (or lack of them), making an effort at small talk, at being interested in matters outside of the hospital, most times the effort of reading a newspaper or book or watching the TV high up on the wall too much to overcome, walking the halls when the need to escape the room is high, peering into other sick rooms when doing so, making eye contact with other vigilant people, the heaviness of waiting etched always in expectant looks, wondering at other stories of illnesses, nodding at the thin young man in his robe, wasting away from something, AIDS perhaps, wondering at his thoughts as he stands at the end of the corridor looking out the window, knowing (unlike Jen) just how ill he is, knowing the prognosis is dim, dealing with it the only way any of us can, one moment at a time, one after the other, then again and again, moments rushing together so quickly but strung out so endlessly that the fabric of time finally stretches and slows down.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Enough About Me -- What Do You Think Of Me?

Three letter excerpts


Before going to bed last night checked hotmail and had two rejections—one from a theatre in Texas for a reading of Pallbearer’s Social and from some theatre for the short patio play. Not the way I like to be sent off to bed. Can tell yourself all the right things but can be discouraging for a Constant Submitter. So I will plow ahead although sometimes I feel like those brothers in traces in The Wake of Forgiveness, pulling their father’s plow until their necks are permanently cantered.


Spent all day yesterday sending out scripts—one even to a theatre (obviously without a home) called Occupy the Empty Space. Hmm. At this point I don’t care if a play of mine is performed on a subway platform during rush hour. Was looking over the spreadsheet and saw I sent 17 submissions out in October then the numbers dropped to 5 and 7 for the next two months. Determined to get those submission numbers back up. And have decided to push Memorial Video quite a bit more since its revision. And am also fishing around for what I want (or am driven) to write about from my past for the memoir. And it may be a matter of touching bases and expanding upon topics previously written about: ancestors, parents, wife and daughters, friends, etc. Hopefully something will strike sparks.


Will be doing some reading this weekend on the memoir. Want to back up some and read for momentum, to see what should come next. Have 6 “memoir” chapters done and 18 short chapters done of the journal. Want to see how these fit going forward. Do remember feeling when I was transcribing (and making literary) the journal about Jen coming out of the coma and having brief lucid moments (usually around 2 or 3 AM) that those chapters needed to be in a string, that they read with gathering force about what was happening. So I don’t want to just throw some “memoir” chapters in to stem that flow. So getting a head start reading up to the few chapters in Part Three will serve me well. I will finish the memoir this year.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wilson Kin

After the Civil War, in a Mississippi in disarray, almost all Republicans being elected during Reconstruction, gardens for food, yes, but crops and any market for them tough to come by, great grandfather James A. Wilson tries to get work as a blacksmith. A letter of introduction from Joseph Carey attests to his skill and character.

December the 31st, 1867

To the Public, Mr. Wilson is seeking a situation as Blacksmith. I will inform you that Mr. Wilson has lived in my neighbourhood a number of years and has worked in my shop most of the time he has been in this vicinity and that he is a good Smith and a man of good moral habbits. It you kneed a Smith I think you would do well to employ him as he is amongst the best welders which is an important item in that Branch of Business.

Joseph Carey
Simpson County

How long he works at forging horseshoes and repairing broken plows and wagons is unknown. What is known is that he lives only nine years after the war. His wife, great grandmother Jemima Byrd Wilson, lives five months shy of 90 years, applying for her first husband Lorenzo’s pension as an Indigent Widow of Soldier or Sailor of the Late Confederacy, under Chapter 102, Code of 1906. Since she doesn’t end up with any of the land James bought before the war, in 1892, pursuant to the Act of Congress approved 20th May, 1862, “To secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain,” Jemima claims 78 acres in Lawrence County, Mississippi, and with the help of Mr. Walt Lambert, who owns a store and grist mill, settles the old homestead, the site of Wilson reunions over the years, the present house built by my grandfather, Wiley, and occupied lately by a series of second cousins.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kinfolks: Mama & Papa Cothern

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

Everyday facts about the Cothern family in Mississippi are known because my grandmother Mama Cothern never throws anything away, keeps birth and death lists in her bible, labels just about every tin-type and photograph with the name of the subject and the date, keeps lists by the year on income from farming, sewing, how many dozens of eggs sold and to whom, has stacks of correspondence, including a series of letters from her mother, great grandmother Sarah, when she was a patient at the Mayo Clinic in 1921, postcards from her sister Pernie and husband Porter on vacation, one from her son, Dulith, serving in the Navy during World War II. Daily events she records in the squares of her wall calendar and she keeps all of those over the years; she clips obituaries and birth announcements, never throws any scrap of paper away, using them to record facts she hears on the radio, drafting letters she may or may not have sent on the envelopes of the old Scenic South magazine. When traveling she keeps a $100 bill pinned to her dress somewhere out of sight, is a loving woman and sometimes a cold person who has a stroke at the supper table here in Baton Rouge, at the table of her third son, Dulith. My parents are there also, my father into his drinking since it is his day off, and somehow in the confusion of the moment, in the push and shove of a crisis, Dulith and my father fight. Another one of those times, a rather unfortunate one, when their rivalry rears its head. Grandfather Papa Cothern spends his life raising cotton, grows peanuts for boiling, makes homebrew from a still down by the creek, his fishing rod and rifle close at hand. Only late in life does he finally get a hearing aid, but by that time no one can break the habit of speaking loudly to him, so he keeps the volume turned down and continues to miss significant parts of conversations.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Tip of Secrets

 Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

  “Talmadge could be a contrary bastard,” Uncle Dulith says that day at the reunion, chasing peas around his plate with his fork, his smile the tip of secrets. “Lord knows we had our scrapes.”
   Surely, battles when they are younger, always an undercurrent of animosity now, an unspoken carefulness when around each other at dove or squirrel hunts on the land in Mississippi where the Cothern boys roam while growing up. My father the oldest, Dulith the third son, it is the resentment of sibling rivalry carried into adulthood. The times they seem comfortable and laugh easily about the time Papa Cothern kills 27 roosting doves with one shot or the time they find his stash of homebrew and lift a few bottles, those brief moments when unguarded are always a surprise.
   My father, married with two sons at the time, never serves in the armed forces like his younger brothers. Perhaps part of the undercurrent is Dulith returning from the Navy to hugs and kisses, war stories to tell his big brother, his scars to prove he has done his part, and his oldest brother’s, too, who knows?
   Pulled from sleep and dressing quickly, shoes on without socks, too young to be left alone in the house, I know about a fist-fight between Uncle Dulith and my father during a fishing trip because I ride with my mother late one night to pick up my father. He is standing outside of a bar and steps from the shadows and passes through neon colors when we pull into the gravel parking lot.
   My father gets into the passenger side of the Kaiser, leaning toward my mother and showing her a wound behind his ear.
   Can you tell if it’s still bleeding?
   Sitting in the back seat—afraid to move and afraid because my father’s voice is so worried, I imagine my father has been in a fight in the bar, has lost, checking his wounds in the shadows, ear bleeding, waiting until we arrive.
   Is whoever beat him up still around?

   The next day my mother calls Dulith and I hang around the kitchen listening to the seriousness in her voice.
   What happened, Dulith?
   Hmm-hunh . . .
   Hmm-hunh . . .
   Not too bad.
   I wanted to know.
   After hanging up and sitting there a moment, my mother presses her lips together. I ask what happened.
   You know your father and his drinking. Him and his nya-nyaing. Uncle Dulith knocked him out of the boat.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Violent Chess

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

   Down there, below the hospital window, two streets over from Bernardo, Bill Leet lives on Wabash, near Coco Lumber Company, where among the lumber bins thousands of secret passages exist for nighttime forays: seeing how close we can sneak up to the nightwatchman, Charlie, before he discovers us; retrieving the softest wood from the scrap pile and whittling rifles and Tommy Guns for games of War, swords for stabbing the yielding trunks of banana trees, crumpling the large leaves with a single stroke; if they are out of favor with us, spying from woodpiles on Jimmy Thompson and his brother Dan (who failed an early grade and is only a year ahead of us). It is behind Bill’s house, on Park Hills, where the field lined with four oaks serves as our most serious playground. Nighttime Molatoff Cocktails (blame Jimmy for those) exploding among abandoned Christmas trees, all in the name of Battleground and Battle Cry and Battle of the Coral Sea, tend to bring adults and cops so we mostly keep to football, bloodying each other if we hit hard enough, always the dirt on jeans and shirts Glory Mud. Skills honed there serve us well when we play football for Bernard Terrace Elementary in the 5th and 6th grades.

   Dan Thompson talks the coach into letting me on the team after I am sick and miss tryouts. No more practice uniforms are available so I borrow pants, jersey, and helmet from friends. No shoes, most playing barefooted. I am fast if nothing else and shortly become the starting Wingback in the Single Wing formation that the Bernard Terrace Panthers utilize. We win more games than we lose, beating neighborhood friends who play for the Dufrocq Ducks. I am hell on the reverse. Ball centered to Dan at fullback instead of the quarterback, a few steps forward like he is plowing into the line, turning and handing off to me, flying around the left end, the joy of yardage gained like an elixir. It is my first taste of attention from schoolmates I don’t know. (Later it is the laughs I get at rehearsal as a smartass Wise Man in the Christmas Pageant who slyly puts his crooked staff between his legs and aims it at Mary Toups, the perfect Virgin Mary every boy in school is in love with.)
   The following year, using the T-formation, joined by classmates on the first string, the Panthers go undefeated. Bill Leet is the starting fullback and punter, coming up to me during one pregame warmup for a strategy session, asking if he should practice his punts, giving away his punting distance to the other team. I play right end and the end reverse still works. In a Jamboree game at Memorial Stadium we run the reverse five times and then Bill fakes the handoff and half of the other unblocked team comes charging through the line to smear me for a loss; just before they do I show empty hands and we all turn and watch as Bill weaves his way downfield. I run for a long touchdown but it is called back and the shortened game ends scoreless. The rest of the games we win, many of the players going on to play junior high and high school ball. Although we go out for practice in the 7th grade a few times, Bill and I discover DRAMA, realizing football practice takes place at the same time as rehearsal, girls without pom-poms more plentiful around the stage, recognition coming without battering heads and bruising bodies.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blood Kin: The Wilsons

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.
   My great grandmother, Jemima Byrd, marries two men named Wilson.
   She has five children—four of them daughters—with Lorenzo Wilson, who fights with Company C, 8th Mississippi, and later dies on New Year’s Eve in 1864 as a prisoner of war at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

   One of the Crane boys was in the war with Lorenzo and all Jemima ever knew was the message he brought back. Crane told her, said along around Vicksburg somewhere, Lorenzo sat down and Crane told him come on let’s go. Lorenzo said I’m sick, can’t go no further. Crane said the Yankees gonna git you. And Lorenzo said I can’t help it if they do. I can’t make it no further. That was the last she ever heard about her husband. She never did again ever know anything about what happened to him. In the later years after all the grandchildren were grown and gone, Jessie Wilson, the youngest one of Uncle Frank’s boys, got interested in knowing something about his granddaddy and he wrote to the war department and it wasn’t long until he found out where he was at. I guess he was captured and carried to Illinois and buried there. ---Jimmy Wilson, age 82.

   My mother’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, in relating the story of Lorenzo on a hot summer afternoon in 1980 on the back patio in Walker, Louisiana, has it wrong about where the capture of Lorenzo takes place. Civil War records say he is taken prisoner on Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, on November 25th, 1863, a sunny afternoon when the Army of the Cumberland is ordered to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. After capturing the rifle pits as ordered, the advance turns into a rampage without orders that does not stop until the rugged terrain ends at the top of the ridge. It is reported that Grant, watching the charge, says something to the effect, Who the fuck ordered those troops up the ridge? The Confederate troops retreat in panic amid confusing orders; of the 2,000 or so troops that are captured that day, Lorenzo must be one of them, sitting down at one point and telling his buddy, Crane, that he just can’t go on.
   From Missionary Ridge, Lorenzo is transported to Louisville, Kentucky, then in early December to Rock Island, Illinois, where he dies a year later.

   Meanwhile, James A. Wilson, my great grandfather, is married to a woman named Sarah J. Hubbard and they have six children. Not having been captured or killed during the Civil War, little is known about his soldiering days except that he isn’t paid very often. In the only letter to survive the years, dated December 18th, 1864, about the time Lorenzo is on his deathbed in Illinois, my great grandfather tells his son Thomas to be kind to his siblings and obey his mother and never vote for a man who was in favor of the war.
   Later, after Lorenzo dies in prison and Sarah dies however, the hills of Mississippi alive with all those Wilson children, Jemima Byrd Wilson marries James A. Wilson and they have two children: Syrentha, a daughter, born in 1870, and Wiley Jackson, my grandfather, born three years later in 1873.
   Jemima is 19 years younger than James when she marries him after the war. How they meet, if they knew each other before, what kind of hard-scrabble life they have together, most is unknown. Perhaps the difference in ages is an attraction. Or Jemima being drawn to a man named Wilson who survives the war. A marriage of convenience (maybe) because a hard life is better shared. It’s whatever we want it to be, as if looking at shadows imagined into patterns might explain who we are and why we feel the way we do.