cambridge book review

Do Thus in Remembrance of Ma

Norma Gay Prewett

Inscribed in Gothic letters into the altar of the First Methodist Church in Steward, Illinois was the command: “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” But to my bored and undiscerning thirteen-year-old eye, the last word was “Ma,” and I amused myself wondering what exactly I was supposed to do for Ma. I sang in the choir, one of the reasons I attended church as long as I did, and depending from the sanctuary ceiling were glass shades that culminated, hanging down, in sharp arrowhead-tipped spikes that seemed suspended on chain too flimsy to really hold them. There were very few earthquakes in that part of the world in the fifties, but I was given to fancy, and clearly imagined at least one of the mammoth fixtures plummeting down on the bowed heads of the congregation, making Christ’s crown of thorns seem like an Easter bonnet. This is the kind of girl I was, and, sadly, despite Ma’s best efforts, the kind of woman I have become. Now that Ma has gone—I have decided to remember her and thus, do thus in remembrance of Ma.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Burning

Norma Gay Prewett

Like Elaine Benes of Seinfeld fame, I once sneaked a peek at my own medical records left lying on the examining table. One doc’s remark began, “This interesting lady presents with …” (and the gory details followed). I know what “interesting” is code for—it is a way of saying “whack job.” But I use interesting in the sense of eccentric and quirky in a very good way, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, “like a girl with one blue eye and one brown.”

My interesting mother died four years ago this year, 2010, on my 56th birthday, April 23rd. Actually, my six sisters claim that she waited to die until one minute after midnight in kindness to me, and that sounds like my mother. But what my sisters don’t know is that I like the perfect circle circumscribed by her dying, if death be necessary, on my birthday. I look so much like her that my father, in his last days, sometimes mixed us up and thought he was talking to her, and I have begun to take on her eccentricities, which were many, so it is fitting that our lives coalesce in this way. Nobody can take that away from me.

My mother had a closetful of superstitions and individualizing traits—she could be a clown, play practical jokes, build odd things out of spare parts, but what I think may have been her most unusual trait was her need to burn—to burn with a clear and purposeful flame anything that annoyed her. She could clear whole swaths of paper goods, for example, if she suspected unwholesome introversion. I shall always wonder whether the day she “cleaned” my little desk in my room (okay, my shared room since I never had a room all to myself until after college for about three months) was the day my particular muse music died for the first time—whether those early soulful poems were my very best, the work of a thirteen-year-old genius of epic proportion—instead of the moody maunderings of a pimply malcontent.

Many was the late Fall or early Spring day when the school bus (actually driven by my dad, but ours was not the last stop) lumbered up our lonely gravel road through billows of both dust and smoke which, much to my everlasting shame, cleared just enough to reveal my mother’s bearish form—dressed in Daddy’s overalls and a tatty sweatshirt, hoisting a rake or shovel to greet Dad. She would be burning the side ditches, a fairly common country sport, which I now know promotes good growth the next year, but for her was just satisfying in every way. If a new broom sweeps clean, a new burn burns really clean, clearing away ambiguity and messiness. Even today, my sisters and I tell each other about our cleaning projects by using the phrase “going all Bonnie on it.” Hers was a literal scorched earth policy.

She burned things that were not ordinarily considered flammable. The epitome of this arsonist’s heart of hers may be represented by the day I came home from school and found Mama dismantling the cook stove. This time, she wasn’t just in a cleaning frenzy either. She took off everything that easily detaches—burners, burner pans, knobs, hardware—and tossed it out the back door. Then, she got the axe. I am quite convinced my mama had an excess of testosterone, and, except for when she fell on ice carrying a full chamber pot (yes, I was born in the 20th Century but we did live in a cold old, unplumbed rental farmhouse until I was nine) and slipped a disc in her back, was strong like bull. About five feet tall and maybe 150 pounds, she had worked out by working—toting full tubs of water for bathing and laundry, heavy wet clothes back and forth to lines, and anything else she took a notion to pull, push, or carry.

Then, axe in hand like some mad suffragette, Mama Bonnie dragooned as many of us children as were within catching distance. We were put to work finishing off the stove like a pack of jackals on a carcass. Mom was probably chewing her tongue and muttering imprecations about the “dad blame” thing and maybe about Daddy as she attacked. (She would later learn to drive, take a job, and have her own checkbook all in one year, but at that time was still dependent on Dad’s income as a janitor, bus driver, sometime mailman, carpenter, factory worker, and tenant farmer—none of which made for excess wealth.)

Practically howling, and getting into the spirit of it all, we helped her send the last of the cook stove careening into the snow-packed yard, where she poured gasoline on it and attempted to set it aflame.

Well, of course it didn’t burn all that well, but I caught the bug. The only thing (besides my early oeuvre) that I differed with her about was the big old ugly, but playable, piano she immolated one day when she heard tortured “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Chopsticks for six hands” one too many times (and her with one of her “sick headaches” probably). It wasn’t like I could play or anything, but I did have a sister who seemed to have some talent. But the thing had been foisted on our family by the school music department’s having shed it and maybe she felt humiliated that her home was considered the final destination for all discards. More likely she was having a bad day and on her last nerve—and had a can full kerosene and wanted to see what a piano looked like on fire. I thought it had given our home a literal veneer of respectability. She saw it as fuel. But she was my Mama and I miss her every time I smell smoke.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Going All Bonnie on It

Norma Gay Prewett

Sylvia Plath, obviously frustrated, once said of her poems, “These will not live / They are not pigs / nor even fish.”

These things that follow are not going to be very orderly. If you want tidy, button-nosed things, you are in the wrong department of the store. If you can find anybody still working in the metaphor store, you may ask to be escorted to the area where people know where everything is and the merchandise is all labeled and prices are clearly marked. On the other hand, if you don’t always mind traveling a little bit out of your way, even mixing up some metaphors, and coming at the truth a little cattywampus, telling all the truth, “but telling it slant,” as Emily Dickinson said, I may be able to help you. So, stick around if you like the scenic route and won’t whine when the author’s telling car gets stuck in a crick and she has to rock ’er out to keep on chugging—to get back down home.

These stories and poems are really my stuff. I co-own them with my family, but even if they borrow them back, you won’t necessarily recognize them as the same pigs, or even the same fish. Each mouth chews on things differently and these have been masticated for years. As the great Lakota chief Black Elk once said, “I don’t know if the things I am going to tell you actually happened, but if you think about them you will see that they are true.” That quote may not even be true, but the point is, these are factual as I could make them except in the cases where wishful fiction or even pure, soggy memory, compacted a few participants into one person, or when it just plain made the story a little more lively and kept me at the campfire for one more show tune. Then, I freely invented. But these stories just gone and shown you, as Flannery O’Connor said of her stories, “what some folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”

Every story starts with a mother, so I will start with mine: Bonnie Ethel Prewett.

Despite the warm baby she held snug against her body, rocking and murmuring, Bonnie was cold. Always cold to her husband’s too warm, she wore a kind of sweater, a thin short sleeved cardigan her own mother Addie, back down home in Arkansas, had proclaimed “useless” with a sniff. She knew this meant that Addie was worried about her—grief stricken that now her baby, Bonnie, was taking off like so many before for the wicked and scary North. Addie herself would visit the North one time—at Easter—to see Bonnie and Elmo and the kids—and, jabbering nervously the whole time about the cold and the suspiciously black soil, holed up in one room and would not speak until Homer, Bonnie’s father, took her back home again, on the Greyhound. Mama, trapped in this land of sharp-speaking cold strangers, cried for days. Years later, Bonnie would tell her daughter, me, that she would have crawled on her knees the 600 miles to Arkansas to see her own mother in those days. And I understood that though speaking her thoughts was not her humble mode, I was supposed to have intuited that I could have troubled myself to drive the 100 miles it took to come see her. Perhaps I could not decipher the signs because once I got there, we frequently did chores together—the kind I had watched her do with other women before I left home at 18—gardening, sewing, canning, always feeding—dad, her eventual seven kids, herself, in that order. What I had not understood was that she was lonely because Mama felt ill at ease with women her age unless they were working on some charitable or domestic endeavor—a church function was best. We did not, like grown up women on TV or my magazines, sit and have coffee and talk. We measured and muttered, scoured and mused. It was precious time to me and I did not even recognize it.

Then, though, I was one of the urchins in the back of the truck she and Daddy—Southern women call their fathers Daddy all their lives—had outfitted for the long trip Up North to find work. It was an International Harvester truck, the year was 1953, and since there were already five kids, the children travelled under a tarpaulin in the bed of the truck, like little calves. Mama probably knew she was stuck. Twenty-seven, slim, and built strong for hard work, she was stuck and knew it. Not a public crier, she probably did not let Daddy, Loren Elmo, know that the few dollars her dad had given her, tied in the corner of a man’s bandanna handkerchief, had already been spent for milk for the children in the back, where they had leapt upon it like bobcat cubs at a kill. She herself, despite giving milk from her body, had taken none. This was her mode and I never saw her behave in any other fashion. She ate, in a small way, and laughed a small, ladylike, giggle except when something truly overwhelmed her manners when she laughed and cried while dabbing her eyes, allowing her to cover her face.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Knowing that Most Things Break

Norma Gay Prewett

“Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake.
He set the jug down slowly at
his feet, knowing that most things break.”

—Edgar Arlington Robinson, “Mr. Flood’s Party”

Knowing that most things break, you lick the flap of the envelope
Twice, softening the sentiment of the rejection inside,
Knowing that a disgruntled postal worker somewhere
May choose to open fire the very day your letter
Is pouched in the bag at his side, doubling the break.

Knowing that most things break, you may drive the nail
To hang your mother’s mother’s plaster plaque
Of the gilded Old Rugged Cross one extra whack.
You may soften the scolding you feel you must deliver
When your child inevitably lies about breaking it.

Knowing that of all the things that break
Words let loose in the trusting air can break, break.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment

Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook

Norma Gay Prewett

I. Knowing that Most Things Break
II. Going All Bonnie on It
III. Burning
IV. Do Thus in Remembrance of Ma
V. Going Bonnie Again
VI. The Holidazz-z-z
VII. Things Too Good to Use
VIII. These Little Lights
IX. Much Better than Being Buried Up to Your Neck in Mud
X. Get Something on that Head
XI. Bill of Lading
XII. Cottonbound
XIII. Wheel of Fortune
XIV. Calling You Back
XV. Afterword

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Norma Gay Prewett is also known as Gay Davidson-Zielske in her professional life as an instructor of composition, literature, screenwriting and creative writing at UW-Whitewater. She has written poetry, fiction, dramatic monologues, and reviews for most of her life, published both regionally and nationally, and is co-producer for the radio literary show Mindseye Radio with main producer Kelly Warren for WORT radio (89.9 FM). She is currently at work on a screenplay and is a backyard chicken enthusiast.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , , , | 1 Comment