Wednesday, October 19, 2011

His Book, His Life

It’s hard to be sure but this I heard years after my father told me what I have said so far.
He was dead by then. One brother was living. He had a photograph of Rich, Abe, and Dave with a slag heap in the background and a building miners entered to take the lift down to begin the working day and take it back up at day’s end. In the photo the brothers are dressed warmly. Rich is somber, wearing a cap with ear flaps, Abe looks very taciturn in his Sunday-type hat, Dave is bareheaded and smiling. They are all dressed for warmth, wearing coats. It must be winter at this coal-mining camp known as Mine 18, later renamed for the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind. My father was born here, where his family lives when they are not working as sharecroppers on a cotton farm in eastern Oklahoma. Here, south of Fort Smith, where I would be born how many years later . . . I don’t know now and I’m not going to stop and figure out the number of years it takes before Abe is dead and then how many have elapsed since I met Dave in that Oklahoma home for the dying, I called it, what others dignify, and to this very day, as a so-called rest home. Rich was still alive somewhere when Abe was killed in Sallisaw by the two men and one woman who were drunk and armed and wanted to rob the house where my grandfather was caretaker for a friend who was out of town at the time. I do not know anything more about Rich, not yet.

My grandmother talked very little about her late husband or his family, and then only to my mother, never to me. My uncle Clyde told me what little I know now, when I saw him on his ninety-first Halloween birthday. We arrived near noon and apparently were seen through the window, the door opening to his little apartment that gave onto an alley with the funeral home across the way. He said, chuckling (his voice hoarse from too many cigarillos), I won’t have far to go . . . but he did not die as easily as he hoped to, he lay in a bed flat on his back hooked up with an oxygen tank, and finally, as I heard from his friend Katy, herself in her nineties by then but still fishing every morning as she would faithfully continue to do for another year or so until she too got sick and died several years after Clyde took his last breath; or so I heard, all of it, from Katy’s daughter Norma, who worked with her husband at Tyson Foods and regaled us that Halloween day with tales of a working life no one should have to bear, especially at a well-known chicken emporium that already had a reputation for workers who had died unable to open the doors after a fire started inside. Shades of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire much earlier in the century. . . at least the toll was not so great and Tyson did not use up so much precious time on TV the news, let alone history, as that still-remembered horror in New York City. In Katy’s living room her other daughter, Blanche, sat with her black-skinned son, explaining briefly that he was the issue of a one-night stand or at least, as she added, only a few nights all told; and she continually alluded to Loretta Lynn when Cathleen was talking about her piano/guitar-fiddle duets with my father, a self-taught musician who always asked me to sing and whom I always refused, only later–a quarter-century later–realizing I had a strong voice one day when I spuriously thought to ape Pavarotti in the open kitchen window where I was washing dishes on a warm summer day in a place infamous (to me, at least) for his six to seven months of snow and ice.

No one knew what happened to Uncle Rich, my father said. Dave loved a good time and drank too much, and during one of the times his mother and father were separated he and one or two of his by-then-already four brothers would get to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when he, or they, visited Abe. He could never understand why his father and mother acted the way they did, always splitting up and his mother always giving birth during the time his father was away, though there was never any question of who the child’s sire was. There were no stories of my grandmother ever leaving the cotton farm where they were cropping for shares when Abe left and the boys took over for him and then took his place following his death. And certainly there was never a word about another man in my grandmother’s life.

Her mother was part Cherokee born and reared outside, but not far from, Tahlequah. There is a studio photograph of Pearl Taylor (whose given name was Peralee) when she was barely twenty. A year later she would marry Frank Clifft in a double wedding ceremony that included her sister Doll and Frank’s brother Jeff. My grandmother, Effie Clifft, was Pearl’s firstborn and her only child; only a few years later, her second child was stillborn and she also died. There is a story, which I have never doubted because my grandmother, who was a mere child at the time said to her son that she was always in town with her mother and played outside the hotel while her mother was with that child’s father, who was not Frank Clifft but an itinerant musician for whom my father was named, Manuel Romain. Frank decided to leave once Pearl and the baby were buried in the same grave, they were so poor and Frank a habitue of Fort Smith’s Row, the city’s whorehouse district on the banks of the Arkansas River. But he did take Effie to live with Jeff and Doll, and their son Tom, before he disappeared . . . “Tom and I,” my grandmother would tell me, “were double cousins, closer than brother and sister.”

Pearl’s mother was Scots and her name, like my father’s grandmother’s, was M atilda; Matilda Satterfield. The Clifft family was Welsh. A Celtic-Cherokee strain . . . Years ago I noticed an apocryphal tale or two, or three or more, concerning the origins of this continent’s original inhabitants, but I have forgotten all but a memory trace that has little if anything to do with people whose name chalaqui translates “cave people.” Nothing to do with Twelve Lost Tribes from Anywhere . . .

After her sons were gone, never to return home, Matilda Wood, Charles McAlexander’s widow, lived with her three daughters on the sorghum farm outside Woolwine. Rose was the first to marry, Sonia married next, and Carla, a wild girl, had two children but never married. Rose’s husband died in a coal mine explosion, Sonia’s drank himself to death. Although Rose bore one child, Sonia did not marry again and remained childless, and after the two husbands were gone all three daughters lived with their mother until she died, Matilda having been forced to give up smoking her corncob pipe only the year before.

I do not know anything for sure, as I do not know much more otherwise than what I was told before the family had left this earth one by one, but I wrote it all down before I forgot and such words have followed me from the narrow two-lane highway my father drove when he brought me home from the hospital until I have come to this street in a place whose people somehow not only the epitomize the characters in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or in his Babbitt, but each winter reminds me of what very little I know of the Yukon, although it is not quite as foreboding as those Alaskan places I have only read about, from Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and The Call of the Wild to my late friend John Haines’s poems in his book Winter News.

Someone asked me once why I considered the past important. I answered what must have seemed flippant: Because I remember. And truth be told, who does not? This country is infamous, as we all know, for never wanting to get caught “living in the past,” and always forging ahead, into the fabled unknown, to make a new life when and wherever necessary. I have been guilty of the same infamy myself: born in Oklahoma Territory, where Fort Smith is separated by the Arkansas River from its Oklahoma banks, south of which lies Spiro with its storied burial mounds. After working for Boeing in Wichita during the war, a friend of my father talked him into accompanying him to a place in the Northwest named for the Yakima tribe, who has since changed the i in their name to a second a to go with the first and the third. I grew up in that country of fruit orchards–cherries, apricots, plums, pears, peaches, apples, and I worked them all, both as a picker and helping haul the boxfuls at the end of the day–and row crops, among them sugar beets and peas and asparagus, the only ones I worked firsthand; and hops, which I quickly learned to avoid assiduously after realizing I was afflicted with a fear of heights, whether merely vertigo or something other, and during harvest you rode a machine twenty feet high, from which you still had to reach higher to make sure all of the hops strung high on their poles were picked before the trucks hauled them to be processed in the warehouse the farmer maintained to maximize his profits from the harvest, which year after year proved to be bountiful, the best-paying crop in that valley.

I came of age on a farm, where my father worked on cars, trucks, tractors, and other progeny of Henry Ford (a fascist genius of Charles Lindbergh’s generation of Nazi sympathizers), whose invention of the Model-T came at the crucial moment in my father’s life, when the man who owned the cotton farm bought a new one and gave my father’s family the used one (he profited so from the crops grown and tended by his tenant farmer family). My father told me: “I’d drive it up against a tree until it was high enough to get under and work on all day and I left it there if I had to, so I could start next time from where I’d had to stop.” In addition to homesteading, building our house from the mere shell of a one-room shack set down, it seemed, in the middle of a rye field surrounded by a vineyard gone to hell for who knows how long, but soon to be joined by two other vineyards, my father, with his bricklayer friend Virgil Stephens, built a large, commercial automobile garage in his backyard, which became famous in the little town less than five miles away. I grew up milking cows and when I was not working out, which meant working for other people, I learned to care for all three Concord grape vineyards, from pruning in winter, then irrigation and cultivation during the spring and summer, to the harvest come early autumn.

My first city was Seattle, and there I lived on a houseboat, with Cathleen, my lifelong love, or as she still likes to say, her “split-apart.” There, I began writing poetry and took it to show Theodore Roethke, who encouraged me to keep going, even asking me to stay another year to take his verse-writing workshop, but I needed money to pay a hospital bill, and he so identified with my dilemma he wrote a letter of recommendation that got me a job in my first town–my parents’ Arkansas home was in the country, about a mile outside the town of Greenwood with a thick forest of pine behind the house, which lay uphill and a pasture away from Clyde and Effie’s house. My next town, where I worked full time as an editor and prose writer for a university, was Pullman, in wheat country only a few miles west of Idaho and roughly an hour south of the state’s second largest city, Spokane, where Cathleen was born and where, after spurning her mother’s wishes that she go to college nearby, with her father’s blessing–her parents always at war with one another, she still says, a half-century later–she left to go to Seattle, where she was confined to a women’s dormitory when I returned to free her a few days after my twenty-first birthday and a month and a half before she turned eighteen. From there I went to San Francisco, and from there with Cathleen to New York City, soon moving to live in western Massachusetts, and finally Albuquerque, from whence we came to what seems to me still more a frontier outpost and hence more town than city (and certainly not a part of its countryside of lakes and forests) even though it has been dubbed, by the local chamber of commerce (or some such nefarious entity), as “First City on the Mississippi; yet I doubt Mark Twain ever mentioned a place this far north as the origin of his beloved river originated, where in fact its headwaters were discovered by a man named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, honored by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his Hiawatha poem where the Ojibwe became, by sleight of mind, the Iroquois.

Friends say, You’ve told this story over and over. What does it have to do with whatever art you may someday possess? They know the answer as well as I: Poetry I have always wanted to make a new kind of prose, richer than the so-called prose poems of either Aloysius Bertrand or Charles Baudelaire, the latter more truly my teacher than the wondrous Roethke, who died not long after I moved to Pullman to take the job I had not even had time to thank him for. I have never been to Paris, however, and at seventy-two and, as I write, recovering from surgery, I will probably never see Balzac’s city, which I, in fact, deem more Jeanne Duvall’s than her flaneur paramour’s. But what of that? I have lived a lifetime in each of the places I have named, and not ignoring my birthplace, where I have often thought of returning to live before I die, for there are, indeed, questions I have as yet no inkling of an answer for, such as Why was an only son born to parents who came from dirt-poor Southern origins and worked themselves to the very lip of the grave and over with their only hope of being remembered left in the hands of their son who, God willing, as my mother would say (my father never mentioning religion except to erupt occasionally, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” and invariably when his Sundays were interrupted by one of the many born-again’rs living around him) . . . God willing, her son would reach old age someday already possessing, they prayed, the modicum of art necessary to tell the story of their lives and all those to whom they were connected, and tell it so that the writer would read it and rewrite it until the day he could write finis both to his book and to his life.

(19 October 2011)

copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander

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