cambridge book review

Bill of Lading

Norma Gay Pewett

A chewed-looking Styrofoam snowman head,
++++++Black felt pipe, googly stuffed-animal eyes
++++++(also the bag of eyes, I discover later)
A sweater that smells disagreeable unless it is your mom’s
++++++An ocher clipping with a penned-in arrow
++++++To my head— “My Daughter” as if I don’t
++++++Recall sitting in turpentine at Methodist art camp
Some recipes she never used, but carefully copied longhand
++++++Swedish meatballs, ham loaf, Hanukkah cookies
++++++Did she know we were not Jewish? Did she know
The people in the multi-picture frame, never filled with us,
++++++So beautiful and fresh, having action-packed fun?
++++++She never saw the sea, but pictures of the sea—
++++++Did she long for the thrum of waves on pebble?
Some hanks of yarn, maybe free, from the spinners where
++++++Her working life began at fifty, where she nearly
++++++Fell in love with her foreman, but for her bad heart
Her bad heart, to my brother, who died with it in his chest.
++++++Her Ozark drawl, her temper, her madwalk to my sis-
++++++ter; her terror of twisters to all, her scrawl she left
++++++backwards, to her ma. After all, most say I got
Her hazel eyes, her love of fun, her Irish hair, and the low
++++++Thyroid that left her brows and mine scant
++++++She left her death-day as my birthday, to me, alone.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment

Get Something on that Head

Norma Gay Prewett

Mama had little patience with people who ran around with nekkid heads or “napes,” meaning “necks,” a word borrowed from HER mother, Addie Rose, the original hillwoman who cooked on a black iron range and washed in a kettle over a fire in the sandy yard of her Arkansas homestead. Mom was a slight variation on her mom (just as I am a slightly-educated version, a pale palimpsest, of my mom). We are all a set of jewel-tone interlocking Tupperware bowls—each locking nicely into the other over the generations. My five sisters and I and probably to a lesser extent, my brother, could be bundled until we resembled teddy bears, but we would be unprotected from the world of dangers, in Mother’s eyes, if we wore no scarves. Now, a word about head gear. As children, or hostages, we had no choice. Long toboggan hats were in style then (see them in A Christmas Story) and Donna, my closest sister in age, and I both sported them far into the Spring. (In Illinois, that time was variable.) Mom favored wool in all things, and that would have been great had I not already developed the delicate Irish skin that plagues me today. I slept in white cotton gloves to cover my split cuticles just last night—I looked like Minnie Mouse.

It could be one of those achingly lovely April nights though, where the lilacs were finally blooming and the scented light wind lured a person out by whispering promises, and my older sisters Jeanett and Pat would be awaiting their dates—who all drove convertibles it seemed to me—big Pontiacs with shining heads of the Indian on the hoods—but they could not set foot one on the porch until they had “something on that head.” Mom stood sentry. (That was the least of her problems with us wild things, but it was within her power to enforce.) It was magical, talismanic, power-laden. It protected one from the earache and the sore throat and the bronchitis. And it didn’t matter if the scarf was the kind they called “chiffon”—that spider-webby, sherbet-colored gauzy material that was of no insulating value whatsoever. Somebody has a photograph of Jeanett standing in our country yard during this era—she is posed in front of a fully-laden lilac, wearing a full cinched circle skirt with a can can (starched nylon petticoat), a wide leather belt, a short-sleeved sweater, and her scarf around her neck. She looked a little like Annette Funicello in those days, maybe painting on a beauty mark too, but with the neat figure and neat flipped cap of a hairdo and the big red lips. She might be sixteen or seventeen. I love that photo, with its wavery edges, and though it is black and white, of course, I can feel the lilac color of that diaphanous scarf in my very core. When she rode in that convertible with Jessie or James or whomever her current fling was—she would be glad to have something on that head.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Much Better than Being Buried Up to Your Neck in Mud

Norma Gay Prewett

When we were “bellyaching” about one peeve or another, Mother used to say the same thing: “at least you are not buried up to your neck in mud.” Not to make light at all of the horrific pictures coming through from Haiti right now, but I am nearly sure it was something on the news, delivered to our family through the rabbit ears of our big-box Philco, that inspired my mother’s undeniably true retort. Of course she was correct, but it did little to comfort, which, in some ways, was not Mother’s strong suit. By her own admission, she had been a tomboy as a young wild girl in backwoods Arkansas. She ran barefoot through the sticker and chigger-laden fields and swam in Bear Creek along with her brothers, Ansel and Harold, though I doubt that her more ladylike sister, Elsie, joined in. She was tough and strong, and even after she developed her family’s bad heart, walked and climbed and would have flown in an airplane had not the neighbor who built the plane she wanted to fly in crashed-landed into a cow and died on his maiden flight. Late in her life, arriving home to the very humble ranch-style home she and Dad built with their own hands and finding it locked with nobody home, she gained entrance by climbing into the rafters of the attached garage, crawling across beams and joists in the dark, spidery crawlspace, finding the furnace room and shimmying down to the interior. She laughed when she “told it on herself,” but we all quaked. My mother had inoperable heart blockages, angina, and wore a capsule of nitroglycerine around her neck like the key of brandy a St. Bernard wears. I guess she figured dying in the crawlspace where we would never have thought to look for her was better than being buried up to her neck in mud.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

These Little Lights

Norma Gay Prewett

In these scratched and snaky bulbs,
discovered this morning from their hidey hole,
marked X-mas in your hand, half-capitals,
half not, I can see way back.

Past cotton fields where you grew round
until you were laid up with a bad back
or lay down with child.

By these little lights, I am led
to the eventual textile mill, the plant
that, as a child, I mistook for a living thing.

In my mind, Mama, these memories are mixed,
tangled worse than closet haunts can do
with the Bible song you had me sing,
trembling, before the Baptist congregation.

“This little light of mine …”

This milky blue has a bum eye
like the mule you said Dad rode
to court you. It now fetches you again.

Each year we tried them, a child at
every third connection to keep them off the floor.
As they snarl on my carpet, with only me now
to hold up my corner of tradition, I hear your angry litany:

This string won’t make it another year, resolved
as one loose red or green would short the set;
that found, another.
Despite your murderous threats, Mother,
none of us was scared.
Even then, we knew you didn’t curse X-mas.

And I know this year I’ll find
the loose connection.
For by these little lights
I finally see your heart.
And by the light of your failing heart, I live.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Things Too Good to Use

Norma Gay Prewett

It was years before my sisters and I put our heads together and figured out that Mama was regifting and squirreling things away (an appropriate trope, “squirrel,” as Mama collected odd animals once in a while—once a squirrel called Jill whom Mama saved from a cut-down tree and who used to terrorize us all by leaping onto our heads). Anyhow, Mama saved every nice thing in the pine box made for her as a “hope chest” by her brothers Harold and Ansel from the pine (a kind of cedar probably) surrounding their homeplace in the Big Woods in Arkansas. (Not to go too “Little House” on you, but it really was a big dark woods where once in a while in summer, a kid could hear a panther scream at night when the kid was supposedly asleep in the back bedroom with the pounded dirt floor—the room with the high iron bed frame and really nice featherticks that smelled of, no trope here, all your relations but in a comforting way.)

Mama would not allow herself the rose perfume in the beautiful bottle I gave her, for example, and so passed it on to my sister Donna, who tried to pass it back to me before I had a fit and told Ma she needed to keep it or give it back to me. (The theory here was that most people don’t give gifts they don’t themselves like, I guess, though this was a particularly pungent essence of rose perfume I’m not sure anybody could have used much of.)

But mostly, our gifts of large fuzzy towels, linens with good thread count, and pretty dishes—meant to replace the sad gray thin towels, the scratchy cheap sheets, and the mismatched cookware she endured, had gone straight into the smallish, mysterious, very plain striped wooden foot locker-sized box—to be exhumed in full only after her death. I had once knitted her a shawl in a lovely soft pink acrylic and tassled it in a tweedy soft grey and white. When I showed it to her, she exclaimed over it, then mentioned how hot it was in their apartment, leaving me to put together the pieces. I think I saw it on her shoulders once or twice. But at least she didn’t give it to one of my sisters, though possibly, it might have arrived back with me sooner if she had. Last week, I wore it to school and it was sort of like a hug from Mama—though it smelled more of my Coco perfume.

I think Mama considered herself not worthy of nice things, which makes me sad. I know the tendency. Maybe all of us have it with gift towels and a couple of tablecloths? But that falls more into the realm of ritual—like keeping Baptist kosher—so that the celebratory is enhanced by the rarity of bringing out the talismanic objects—the special stuff. Mom had little “special” stuff and what she did have, she gave us early. In a burst of fine rationalism and common sense, when she and Daddy moved from the house they built in Steward, the “new house” that was by then 45 years old or so because neither was safe on even the seven-mile stretch of backroads drive any longer (Dad was nearly deaf and blind—Mom had a dangerous heart condition) Mom convened us kids (don’t think Marx had returned from his wandering days yet) and posted numbers on the few good things she had—a plated “silver” tea set we had given her and Dad for a twenty-first anniversary, a few quilt tops from our grandmother Addie and maybe our great aunt Ruby, pairs of embroidered pillow cases, crocheted things from who knows where (Mama only made 1,000 pairs of “booties”—drawstring slippery slippers I could not wear, knowing not only there would be no more after a while, but that I could kill myself slipping downstairs in them—so had stashed in my version of the cedar chest). We then were instructed to draw numbers from a hat and so she dispersed her little fortune. We were told we could make swaps among ourselves but that she did not want to hear any fussing before the fact. Marx gave me his crocheted things with some kind of derisive comment, I’m afraid. He was a lot like Mom—so sensitive that he had to cover it up with a brusqueness bordering on cruelty at times—or vanish into the threatening maelstrom of emotions which were his artistic due.

The most touching thing of all: my sisters determined that I was the most deserving of the battered little cedar chest itself. Tears spring to my eyes now as I recall the graciousness. Being sweet, they all said things like, “I don’t really have a place for it,” but I wonder if all of them craved it as much as I did. As kids, my sister Donna and I sometimes sneaked in, emptied the contents, and played “casket” with it, maybe leaving some blanket with the satin edging to lay our play dead heads upon. I could smell Arkansas in that small box—and yes, hope. So the message du jour to anyone reading this—use your nice stuff. Wear it, flaunt it, realize you are worth it. (But if you really can’t bring yourself to do that—save it for me.)

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

The Holidazz-z-z

Norma Gay Prewett

Mother loved the holidays, though she never had much “to do with”—a registered Momism. But we did our version of “little house on the prairie” stuff—made sno-cream until the news announced that there could be nuclear fall-out in the pristine-looking sno. (Recipe for sno-cream—choose snow as far away from the outhouse as possible, stir in milk and vanilla—eat.)

We made rough paper chains and strung popcorn for the tree, always a bad little shrub of the kind Greg Brown called “a ditch cedar.” There was no money for buying a pine from a lot, so Daddy cut one down on his way home from work. He and Mom stood it in a bucket full of damp sand, bored holes and stuck in branches to round it out, and made do. We baked crazy-looking square oatmeal cookies—mother did not really like cooking, probably because she never really had the right ingredients. After she died, my sisters and I found her recipe collection and were amazed at one marked “Hanukkah cookies” with GOOD written in her hand. Did she think we were Jewish? Nobody could recall ever eating a Hanukkah cookie. For weeks and maybe months before Christmas, Mother would sneak around hiding the things she had made from scratch—usually rag dolls, while Daddy would come home from various hard, dirty jobs, bone-weary, and then go to work in his shop out back or in the cold attic (I was a kid, oblivious to their lives) building and painting doll beds with his friend Ward Lawson. When one Christmas I requested something nobody could make from scratch—ice skates—and they got me the cheap kind that buckled onto shoes. I cried and sulked, having dreamed of the lovely Sonja Henie kind of white high tops. This made my mother, who would have loved to have bought the real thing, cry, while Daddy went a shade deeper red in the face.

Mother was nothing if not frugal—and also very creative and resourceful. Halloween was her tour de force, for, having no money for store-bought clothes, but having a treadle Singer and a good eye, she sewed pumpkins, fairy princess dresses, both halves of horses, and whatever else met her fancy. My sister Donna and I, fully two years apart and opposite in coloration and body type, were made to act twins in clothing. To keep the peace and reduce envy, she made us two identical everything—skorts (shorts and skirts) and chemises—straight, 20’s style shifts, full skirts, pinafores—everything but underwear and shoes—in different colors. She starched blouses by cooking the starch, she ironed non-stop with some very dangerous appliances, including the one iron she heated on the kerosene stoves that failed to heat our drafty rented farm-house, the Beitel place, so that she could pre-warm our bed (and there were always at least three of us in the same bed) so that we could, by launching ourselves through the air from the last slightly warm edge of the living room linoleum, land close to, if not in, a bed that was a few degrees warmer than the freezing floor. We were spot-cleaned (faces, hands, feet, etc.) with a rough, line-dried “warsh rag” from a pan of water atop the same stoves. I recall my first bout of having my mouth washed out with soap for declaiming in my best Tennessee Ernie Ford voice “the Tennessee stud loved the Tennessee mare.” It was the word “stud” that sealed my fate and my mouth—temporarily.

How exhausted she must have been, how that fair white skin and black, black hair must have suffered in the dry heat of the leaky house. She may have sewn for herself, but I only recall her sacrifices for us. Today, talking with my nephew and his wife, the only son of my late brother Marx, he told me something I never knew: apparently, Mom used to manufacture whole suits of clothes—from top hats to shoes—out of folded newspapers, entertaining her grandkids with these suits that must have looked like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz in their chunkiness. He said she did it without tape or fasteners, a kind of giant origami that was buttressed and held together by counterfolding and inner tension based nothing but folding. I wonder if one lucky kid got the funnies for his or her suit? It is so easy for me to imagine her, dimpling, while she outfitted them for their delight and her own.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Going Bonnie Again

Norma Gay Prewett

Cleaning a space to plant pansies, I glance
Deep into their cat faces and think of Mama—
Each Spring she gloried in burning and trashing,
Loved the birdsong and bright stalks emerging
From the depression of Illinois winter.
Fought her own depression with back-rending
Hoeing and raking, making new out of old.
Once my own boy asked her why
People have to die. I held my breath—
Regarding his sky-blue gaze and awaiting
Her answer. “Look at this green shoot,”
She said, budging the lilac with her shoe—
“the old stuff has to die to make room for the new.”
Mama, today, on my 59th birthday, your death-
Day three years ago, I feel the truth of you,
The deep, unlettered beauty and wisdom
And truth of you.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

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