Stories and Opinions
I grew up in a house full of stories and things, but I yearned for conversation and ideas. I doubt that I had a word for it before I went off to college, but I knew there was something missing, and instinctively I knew I would have to leave the South to find whatever it was. I could not imagine any Southerners much different from us.
My family dealt in anecdotes and cautionary tales which, though entertaining and instructive, did not evoke real response. I wanted to be engaged in a process; I wanted to swat the ball back over the net, impossible with a good story which is, after all, a finished drive. Stories, by drawing the attention to images and memory, hinder the exchange of information so vital to conversation, undoubtedly the reason why Southerners are so adept at telling them. When there are so many topics that could get you killed, best deal in fiction and be safe. And although everybody may know it’s the truth that’s being told, whatever is presented in a story gets treated as fiction.
The things in our Arkansas house were the flotsam of our century in one place — whatever flotsam, that is, that had survived the 1927 flood, that awesome lake of water which stretched from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico and was the subject of endless stories around our house. A disaster has to be anticipated, endured and cleaned up after to qualify as major, and the ’27 flood met all these requirements.
It had been anticipated for years, since my family lived near the point where the Arkansas River runs into the Mississippi and had looked for a flood every spring. Indeed, there had been so many incidents of “high water” that, like the people near a volcano who pay no attention to the single trickle of lava that appears running halfway down the mountain side and so are unprepared for the real eruption, the family simply found it interesting when the levee broke in 1927 and water got high enough to run into the yard. Nobody even got out of bed that night to investigate the sound of water sloshing around under the house, but at dawn a motor boat provided by the Red Cross tied up to a porch post and evacuated the family, with only the clothes they could put on, to the highest ground within 50 miles, the levee itself.
When the family got back three months later, there was a foot of silt on the floor of the house and water marks six feet high on the walls. The only furniture left were the few pieces held together by pegs; the glue in everything else had come unstuck. We were left with only a few trunks, a bed, a chest of drawers and an old mahogany secretary. My father took the legs off the secretary and used them to build a dining table; iron beds replaced the lost wooden ones except for the magnificent, primitive, plantation-made four-poster that my grandfather, my father, my brothers and sister and finally I were all born in. I was not there yet in 1927. I didn’t have to be; I know what it was like because I’ve been told.
Even that house was gone by the time I have my first memories at two. My mother knew by 1933 that the smell of the flood could never be washed out of it. She didn’t like it anyway, because the kitchen was in a separate building, so she insisted on a new one. To please my father’s sister, who lived with us, it had to be built on the same spot, so we lived in the commissary until the new house was ready. The trunks containing letters, family papers and photographs which had survived the flood sitting safely in the old attic were moved to the new one and the story of our lives went on.
In the photographs, my grandfather, veteran of every major battle fought by the Army of Tennessee, who had died in 1904, was still glaring out from what in my childhood I thought was a tintype heaven, his weak chin hidden by a fan of white whiskers. At least I came to imagine that his chin was weak, probably because of the stories told of his willingness to let the farm go to ruin while he hunted anything that moved or read anything he could get his hands on. Cotton in the field never kept him out of the woods or away from a new book. His library floated around in the house during the flood, and my mother told of drying out the books and ironing the pages so we wouldn’t have to live like savages with nothing to read.
The people in the pictures and stories were as real to me as the children in my class at school because I knew in minute detail not only what they looked like, but also what they had said and done. Cousin Frierson, who died in 1906 from acute indigestion, was standing right at my elbow in his little belted-tweed jacket and buttoned shoes every time it crossed my mind to taste a green pecan. Dead 25 years before I was born, he was talked about as if he had just stepped into the wings. (It was impatience that killed him; he could have waited for those pecans to get ripe.)
We were all together in that place, one generation mixed with the others, and who’s to say that I did not hear their voices as I was sure I did when the wind blew hard enough through the walnut trees in the yard that my father, as a boy, had inadvertently planted by dumping a load of nuts there with his little red wagon. He had hauled them from somewhere else on the place and put them there to dry for the walnut cakes that Aunt Mitty, the cook, made so well. Forgotten, they sprouted and grew and by the time I was six were at least four feet in diameter.
And who’s to say I did not see a ghost in the driveway one night, as I was sure I did, whirling in the moonlight like a dust devil?
The stories and things went together. The old dresser that wouldn’t soak apart had a bottom drawer strictly reserved for sick children. You had to be too ill to go to school but well enough to be allowed to look in it. It was the last resort of a mother near the end of her rope to keep an irritable child busy and it seldom failed. Among other things in it was a tomahawk so dull the victim might have been bludgeoned but hardly scalped. (The Indians who left it, the Quapaws, are said to have been too amiable to have been much interested in scalps anyway. They are also the only Indians noted by the French explorers for their sense of humor.)
The house is built on the site of a Quapaw village and the tomahawk, a mortar and pestle and hundreds of arrowheads had been plowed up on the place. But there were relics of later eras too: pince nez from God knows where, strings of beads, a tuning fork, old watches that didn’t work and a huge brass compass that did, the very compass that had been used by my great-grandfather to survey the county when it was still wilderness. The drawer was so full it was too heavy for a small child to open, but none would have dared to try because it was clearly understood to be a privilege for the convalescent only.
A privilege for the not-quite-convalescent was to be allowed to be in the old Big Bed which had survived the flood. It deserved its name, for each of its massive posts must have come from a small tree. My grandfather’s initials were carved on one post at the eye level of a seven-year-old. To a sick child this bed became a carriage if there was an obliging well child to sit at the foot with legs dangling to play coachman. My brother Bob drove me cheerfully through endless colds, measles and chicken pox, and I remember the loneliness of mumps because by the time I had it he was lost to adolescence.
But I digress. As I said at the beginning, I yearned for ideas. I’d heard enough stories to last a lifetime by the time I went to college and met people who conversed. It was exciting to say something, anything, and have something pertinent said right back without any crabwise movements. I got to be pretty good at conversation myself after getting over the shock of hearing for the first time in my life “nice” people say, “That’s not true,” and “I don’t believe you.” I was innocent of this gambit because objective truth is so irrelevant to higher, fictional truth that nobody in my family would have dreamed of sacrificing a story to it. I remember the pleasure and stimulation of those early conversations, how alive I felt, and intelligent. But I do not remember a single thing we talked about.
The man I married was adept at conversation, too. We could go anywhere and exchange information with anybody, and we taught our children to do the same thing. They can converse intelligently on many subjects, and because of the changed times and the places where they have lived, they don’t worry about getting killed for expressing their opinions. When they were small we moved around to follow my husband’s work so our house, wherever we were, never had interesting things in it like the house I grew up in. I became enamored of Danish furniture: no clutter, smooth lines and surfaces, well-jointed drawers that didn’t stick and were periodically emptied.
But oh we did talk, and still do; we discuss weighty matters. Swat and the ball flies over the net; whap and it’s my turn again. But there is something amiss: my sons, who can converse endlessly without anecdote, could not rise to a story if their necks depended on it. They are like me in their passion for the exchange of ideas, and they are the spitting images of some of the men in those old tintypes, but I look at them and see strangers. Sometimes talking to them reminds me of flying over the neighborhoods around airports, the ones with identical little houses and no trees in the yards. You can tell by looking at those houses from a thousand feet up that they don’t have any interesting things in them. Or stories either. So I have started writing things down for them, reparations perhaps for bringing them up among strangers in ghostless houses furnished in the International Style.
Margaret Jones Bolsterli is a cultural historian who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her books to date are The Early Community at Bedford Park and Vinegar Pie and Chicken Bread: The Diary of a Woman in the Rural South in 1890- 1891. (1982)