How to Sum up the Year: Just an Ordinary Day

I’ve thought a lot about this entry because it falls on a calendar date of some significance.  Of course, calendar holidays aren’t usually the ones that make big dents in our memories (unless we’re talking about bicycle gifts for holidays or a wedding celebrated on Valentines).   The days you hold on to, good and bad, aren’t marked on someone else’s calendar.  And of all of the marked days, New Year’s Eve isn’t anticipated by loads of people outside of the liquor business.  Still, it has significance and so does the book, Just an Ordinary Day despite it’s title, because its author was no ordinary writer.

Just an Ordinary Day is a selection of stories written by Shirley Jackson.   Some of these are previously unpublished stories that seem to go back to her college years and the final one was published three years after she died.  She created a lot of material between those two events that fall into several different genres.  There are the psychologically disturbing stories that made her famous, the domestic ones that made her loved and several tales that resist categorization of any type.  As a guess, I suspect Ms. Jackson would like that.  Her stories tended to show the dichotomies of life.

For example, take the title story of the volume, “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”  The central figure, a Mr. Johnson spends his day doing good deeds everywhere.   He smiles at people, looks after children and shares his peanuts and money.  He turns strangers into friends, helps the poor and directs the lost.  No apparent reason, no motivation.  He’s just a very kind, generous man.  At the end of the day he sees his wife, a smiling comfortable woman who reports on her day.  She accused an innocent person of shoplifting, sent three dogs to the pound and probably got a bus driver fired.  Is Mr. Johnson angry at his wife’s behavior?  Here’s what follows:

“Fine said Mr. Johnson. “But you do look tired.  Want to change tomorrow?”

“I would like to,” she said.  “I could do with a change.”

 In other words neither one of them is, by nature, good or bad.  Good and evil are behavior choices people make and the results of those choices make up the yin and yang of our lives.  Life isn’t one thing or another, it’s a bunch of things all mixed up together and so are most people.  Just like no ordinary day is really ordinary.

Think about it.  What was your yesterday like?  Was it good?  Bad?   Let’s say it was an ordinary day for you.   But yesterday (odds are) someone fell in love and somebody got married.   Other people fell out of love and someone got divorced.  A baby was born that was wanted.  Another unwanted one was too and we can only hope those parents change their minds.   Someone old died.  Someone young died.   Someone took their first step.  Someone probably took their last one.  It all happened yesterday, during your ordinary day.  A day that wasn’t ordinary at all.

That’s a bit far afield from Shirley Jackson except her stories make a person comfortable with profound thoughts.  Those stories had the habit of standing some ordinary convention on its head so the reader could look at it in a different way.  If the reader didn’t like what he or she saw,  well, maybe the convention needed rethinking or the reader could shut the book.  What he couldn’t do again was accept the convention at face value.

So think about your last year with all of its calendared holidays and non-holidays with singular memories.  If you want, read some Shirley Jackson stories and remember life is varied and convention is seldom as it seems.  Share your peanuts or don’t but remember if you get tired of who and what you are, you are free to change tomorrow.

A favorite son and one loud-mouthed little girl: Addie Pray

Birmingham, Alabama has a favorite son and I’ll bet they’ve forgotten his name.  He was an editor and minister’s son, a foreign correspondence that parachuted into Normandy during World War II and a novelist.   Of all things, Joe David Brown was a very good novelist who invented a great loud-mouthed little girl.  Her name was Addie Pray.

Does that child’s name ring a bell?  Probably not if you’re less an 45 and that is your misfortune,  Miss Addie Pray is a pragmatic girl with a will of her own.  Book critics have called her a cross between Huck Finn and Scout Finch and they’re just scratching the surface.  Add that she shares the indomitable will of True Grit’s Mattie Ross and the picture becomes clearer.  Of course she can steal your heart but that’s to be expected.   Addie Pray is a trickster, a confidence kid and the heroine of Paper Moon.

Let me backtrack a minute.  During the Depression (before he parachuted into Normandy and won a chestful of medals) Joe David Brown was a reporter for the Birmingham News.  A police reporter, specifically.   Part of his beat took him down among those guests of the county who were awaiting arraignment or trial.   And he learned about confidence games.

A good confidence game rarely separates the victim from all of his money, just enough to keep the confidence man in business and the victim a little more watchful in the future.   Joe David Brown learned how con men audited the obituary columns and then showed up at the doors of bereaved widows, brandishing a cheap bible and a story about how the deceased had ordered it for her.  The widow is transported to hear of her late husband’s thoughtfulness and insists on paying a handsome fee for it.  The con man gets away with a bulky profit.

Or the con artist could make a killing selling fictitious crops to a dealer with a handful of the dealer’s tags and some “samples” he found blowing down the street.  (Anyone who has ever been in a cotton town during harvest will tell you small bolls escape from the truckloads of picked cotton and lay in the gutter looking like handfuls of dirty snow.  Clean up some of that gutter cotton up, blow off the dust and put it in a paper cone and you have yourself some decent samples.)  Joe David Brown heard all of the stories of obtaining unearned wages and he remembered them.  After winning his medals and serving as a foreign correspondence he decided to write one more book about Alabama.  The result was Addie Pray.

Addie is the daughter of Essie May Loggins, the wildest girl in Marengo County.  When Essie dies unexpectedly, Addie’s informally  adopted by “Long Boy” (Moses) Pray, a friend of her mom who finally realizes how the presence of “a little daughter” can help whenever he’s trying to look innocent in front of a mark or a judge.  Between “doing business” (their term from running a con game) and staying ahead of the authorities, they do pretty well traveling around Alabama  during the Depression.  You could say they kept the money in circulation.

This tale might sound a bit familiar.  Two years after Mr. Brown published Addie Pray, a film director named Peter Bogdonavitch turned it into a movie called “Paper Moon” that did a fair amount of business, enough to get Mr. Brown to republish his book with the new title.  Mr. Brown died shortly afterwards so there were no further adventures of Addie Pray. It’s a shame; you knew that young lady had more tales to tell.

The book is a delight, especially if you live in Alabama.  There are enough local spots mentioned that you can map out the adventures of Addie and Long Boy without any problems.  But Addie appeals to more than local pride.  She is a scallawag, a survivor, a fan of Franklin Roosevelt and a good heart who can pick out a mark at 30 paces. She’s one of a kind and I want to be just like her when I grow up.

A spell-binding voice of uncertain truth: Lillian Hellman

I’m a big believer in role models.  While we are growing up, we emulate the behavior of those we admire, hoping we’ll be admirable too.  Eventually we sort our our own priorities and personalities but until then, it helps to have someone to follow.  Given all that, I probably could have picked a better person to imitate than Lillian Hellman.  For one thing, Lillian Hellman was a professional dramatist and I don’t like her plays.  As dramatic vehicles they are “theatrical” pieces where characters quiver, thunder or plot but rarely come to any realizations and the plays are aging as well as my old Earth Shoes.  In other words, not.  So Lillian’s plays are out.  Her integrity was attacked often and well, most notably when Mary McCarthy said, “Every word she writes is a lie—including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”  Those who tracked down the details suggest there’s some exaggeration in Miss Mary’s statement but not enough to acquit Miss Lillian.  So she wasn’t a good example there either. Nevertheless, I was looking for a unique voice and shimmering images of words when I found Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman.  One role model, made to order.

An Unfinished Woman was popular around the time I started looking for complex characters.  Like many adolescents, I believed that  unhappiness and ambiguity suggested a more developed, subtle mind and I wanted to become a complex, challenging woman.  I found my heroine in Miss Hellman, a woman who rarely suffered fools and never took the easy way out of a difficult situation.  I overlooked the extra pain she brought to herself and her friends because of the brave way she sailed into each disaster.

If we stick to verifiable facts, it is clear that Lillian was “a difficult child who grew into a difficult woman.”  Smart, insecure and argumentative, she recognized the virtues and failings of her charming, faithless father, his shy, dominated wife from Alabama and the segregated South she was raised in.  Observant and merciless, Lillian could also be a gigantic pain but there’s something interesting about a person who never chooses the comfortable, easy roads in life and on that scale Lillian Hellman is interesting.  She rejected the triple play of  childhood-to-marriage-to-motherhood that most American women of her generation repeated.  She carved out a place for herself in a notoriously difficult industry.  She also found politics and unerringly sided with whoever antagonized the most people in power.  If the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t trust her judgment, at least two friends did.  Both Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker trusted this woman’s angry judgment enough to make her their literary executor. If she made mistakes discharging those duties, (and there are those who suggest she made many) the errors were made in favor of guarding the privacy of her dead friends not enriching herself.   In those ways she could be seen as  trustworthy.

Eventually I read An Unfinished Woman as a memoir instead of a manifesto or guidebook and I’ve never developed Ms. Hellman’s tension or work ethic.  To tell you the truth, I don’t want to be that angry. I still admire her uncompromising battle with life and I appreciate her illuminating prose.  I just choose which battles I fight.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what she did.

When a book turns your world around

I still remember the first day I saw it, upright in a metal paperback stand in my English teacher’s class.  Because I recognized the author’s name, it took me a week or two before I asked about the paperback; I was already a dweeb to the other students and I didn’t need that image underscored by carrying around this book.  The teacher probably guessed I was interested but he played it cool saying the books in the rack were for borrowing as long as we wanted to keep them and didn’t say a word about the author.  That’s all it took.  One reading lead to another and another until I had to replace the disintegrating paperback.  I’ve read a lot of books that achieved a new point in literature but few things have amazed me as much as Woody’ Guthrie’s Bound for Glory.

Before I picked up this autobiography, my thoughts of Mr. Guthrie were tagged to grade-school sing-alongs of “Roll On Columbia” or “This Land is Your Land.”   I appreciated the simple lyrics and catchy melodies but I really didn’t know anything about the man other than he was from Oklahoma, like my dad’s family.  His autobiography was a revelation.

First, there was his writing style. Woody’s formal education ended before high school and although he read everything he could find, public libraries weren’t as common or stocked as they are now.  You would expect his prose style would either be hideously limited or an imitation of what he read in “important” books.  It’s neither.  Although Woody keeps the optimistic low-key vernacular found in his song lyrics, his sentences have an immediacy and drive that put the reader dead center in every scene. There are a lot of professional writers who can’t write this well or this way.  Woody tells the story of his life as if each scene is happening in front of his eyes and that’s how you see it too, partly because he doesn’t pull any punches about what he sees.

The second thing is his emotional honesty.  Woody writes like his priority is to tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.  As an adolescent, he watched his mother’s mental and physical deterioration from what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea (the disease that eventually killed him.)  He describes her slide into insanity in these unforgettable lines:

‘She would be alright for awhile, and treat us kids as good as any mother, and all at once it would start in something bad and awful something would start coming over her, and it would come by slow degrees. Her face would twitch and her lips would snarl and her teeth would show. Spit would run out of her mouth and she would start out in a low grumbling voice and gradually get to talking as loud as her throat could stand it; and her arms would draw up at her sides, then behind her back and swing in all kinds of curves. Her stomach would draw up into a hard ball, and she would double over Into a terrible-looking hunch and turn into another person, it looked like, standing right there before Roy and me.

I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these.  You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these.  I know. I understand you.  I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.

Woody doesn’t spare words in Bound for Glory, on himself or anyone else.  This is his life, the way he saw it.  That level of integrity, despite the pain, moves me.  It makes me want to tell the truth.

When other people sing the phrase “Bound for Glory” their emphasis is on the last word, as if they’re saying, “I’m going to be star.”  I would say becoming a star was the last thing on  Woody Guthrie’s mind.  He walked out on auditions, played for no money and always managed to irritate the right people.  Instead, Woody’s emphasis was on the first word in his title not the last.  He was headed in the right direction, on his way and the journey was more important than the destination.  As long as the train was still moving, Woody Guthrie was on it and searching for a better place.  In the meantime, he left us behind, sadder for his absence but more articulate because of his words.

So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
It’s a long time since I’ve been home
And I’ve got to be drifting along.

The place where they take you in and the courage to endure

My mother loved historical romance novels.   These tales were the “chick-lit” of her day, usually set in an era of voluminous skirts and low, square necklines (which looked good on the cover) and centered around headstrong, resourceful heroines who caused scandals and made mistakes until circumstances or the right man came into alignment and the heroine became a part of history.  Mom’s favorite writers were Norah Lofts and Anya Seton, two authors who made a point of researching the background of each book for accuracy.  I know because I read every book in her collection.  (This was before before YA books really came onto the scene and I will read the back of bug repellant bottles if nothing else is available.)   My favorite was an Anya Seton story set in 19th century Massachusetts and it’s a little bit different from the rest.  It was called, The Hearth and Eagle.

The Hearth and Eagle is (in the story) a historic tavern in Marblehead and the daughter of the tavern owner isn’t interested in history.  Hesper Honeywood’s dad may be fascinated by genealogy and poetry but his daughter prefers ready bought goods to home-made and the company of a young fisherman to tales of her ancestors.  Most of Hester’s life is spent trying to escape her family and the business/home that is her birthright; later, she uses the house and the balance of her energy  to help others find the wisdom and the courage to endure through their own setbacks and disappointments.  Hesper’s great gift is realizing that while generations arrive and depart, the home that shelters them all is a constant if cared for well.  The inn, like the pre-revolutionary 17th century andirons it shelters, is the symbol of home, everlasting.

A few years before she died, my mother sent me a package of books to add to the library I was assembling.   In the package was The Hearth and the Eagle.  “I remember you always liked this one,” Mom wrote on an enclosed note.  I was irritated at the time because I had definite ideas about which books should be on my shelves and I seldom agreed with Mom’s literary taste.  The fact is, we often argued and there were times I would have been irritated if she’d found a cure for cancer.  But The Hearth and Eagle stayed on my shelves and on nights like this one, I re-read it.  I like to think the book is like the strong and eternal house in it’s pages.   It’s abiding message of courage meant something to my mother and now it comforts me.  Future generations will probably overlook it but as long as there are omnivorous readers and copy of the book exists somewhere, someone else will probably find help in this story.  The Hearth and Eagle will endure.