cbr 17 / spring 2010
Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook
Norma Gay Prewett
Reclamation: Memories of a New Orleans Girlhood
Eva Augustin Rumpf
From the Archives
Omens of Millennium
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Norma Gay Prewett
This memoir is dedicated to not only Bonnie, my mother, but to many, mostly and always my sisters, in descending order, Pat, Jeanett, Sue, Donna, and Angie, and to our late brother Marx, the light of Mama’s days. And of course to Daddy, “Shorty” Prewett, without whom Mama would not have been my mom.
My mother wrote letters in pencil in an erratic scrawl on Big Chief tablets (I gave her stationary over the years, and she did me the favor of writing her poetry, late in her life, on these sheets). If Mama made a joke in her letters and thought us too dull to catch it, she drew in large letters the word HO, followed by three exclamation points and heavy black underlining. Today it might have been a smiley face or LOL, but her mark was HO! Today, my sisters and I, who also invented the phrase going all Bonnie on it to mean throwing oneself into Spring cleaning with a vengeance, crack each other up by signing off the same way. So, in remembrance of Ma, HO!!!
And thanks most of all for the gift of Bob Wake who called me up and nudged this work into being on a warm Spring day near April.
In love and laughter, Norma Gay.
Norma Gay Prewett
for my son, Alex
You flop on the sled, luge-style
feet candy canes ahead, prone
as if you are home, lounging in your bed.
Instead of plummeting to a distant fate.
And I start to raise my hand,
to step into your path,
pull you up and call you to come back
as if you had slipped in the bath.
There’s already so much space between
five years old and six, such difference.
Your daddy shakes his head at me and gives
a bonus shove, to your delighted shout.
All I can see of you retreating
toward the sulfurous sunset
is your red left glove
and the Day-Glo pink of sled.
I knew you would be sliding from me soon
There were signs that the kernel, the meat
of you would crack that babyhood I loved
in a blizzard of sharp-boned shell.
Your shape is soon lost in the covey
of other people’s chicks scattered at the bottom
I hug myself and huddle with the other mothers
Each hoping, against reason, to call you back.
Later, as you crawl in with us, claiming illness,
I am shocked and comforted by
the still littleness of your body,
the lightness of your bones seem hollow
as those of birds.
The dark disguises and shrinks the boy
who seemed so solid on the sled.
I fall asleep breathing your essence
and blowing it back upon your purpling lids,
sealing our compact. I will let
you grow—if you will
always let me mother.
Norma Gay Prewett
Day I—Thursday, April 20
When 6:30 came
On that cruelly blue,
Mother roused enough
From her grey slumber
To watch Pat Sajak
And Vanna turn the wheel.
How “Wheel of Fortune,”
A medieval concept, fits.
In her version, there is no
Of cards, but the slow,
Physical turning of Fate.
Laid up or laid down
With the bad back or
With birthing. Seven
Times seven her pain
And her joy kept turning up.
Seven times in childbed
And now we return, we
Seven, watching, hovering
Even, to deliver her.
Daughters and one son
So like his dad we blink
And rub our eyes when
He walks in.
Her grow large again
In extremis, but with
Something else, this time,
Swelling her belly.
With fluids and the blip
And bleat of consciousness
Pumped in and out.
These contractions help
Her labor to get breath,
Not give it.
Look, her mouth opens
To nurse life from the oxygen
Bubble. Her kind, sleepy eyes,
Always the pretty hazel-bush blue,
Alight on first one birthday balloon
Of pastel face, then the other.
Perhaps our heads
Seem untethered to her, like wash
On the line that has lost a pin.
Perhaps she worries that she
Should gather us in before the storm.
We loom, perhaps, like the
Thunderheads themselves, we,
Our husbands and children.
It is just past Easter and we
Are colored eggs hidden in her room.
Day II—Friday, April 21
Her hands, square and serious,
Grasp for us—padding for milk
Of kindness the way we must have.
She feels the need to rise
And tries to say so—there
Are things to do, always early
In the morning and with all this
Company! She worries up and down—
Is the coffee pot cleaned and set on?
Further down and back, where are
The chickens? “Those raggedy
Clouds,” she’d say, “hold a lot
Of wind. There might be a twister
I want to let her rise,
Pull her from this too-white
Bed that is not a bed—that
Needs chenille and real wood.
But we obediently tuck her hands
Beneath the sheets and so-called
Blanket. She needs quilts! Her
Mother’s quilts specifically.
We think she needs booties
Like the dozens she crocheted over
The years, enough for Afghanistan.
She works at it, would be biting
Her tongue in concentration like
Kids do if she were able, finally
Frees her leg from the strangling
Cover. Her leg, still shapely
And white, reminding me of
The stout shoes she favored.
I want to press any thing that
Has touched her to my body.
I want to be my eldest sister,
Her firstborn upon whose chest
She is finally allowed to rest.
Her fine silver head of hair
Stirring in the artificial breeze.
She does not seem lost,
But I ask her, like a schoolmarm,
If she has any questions—
And she says “no” to my relief—
What could I possibly know
That she does not now besides
Day III—Saturday, April 22
In the waiting room for the ICU
Suffering family sifts memories.
Jokes are tried, fail, fall to the
We continue to make our human sounds.
And the crazy-quilt of jagged
Lines in the other room
Rides up (good fortune)
And flings itself down.
(The Wheel on which we are
All broken, swinging us
From the indignity of birth
To the dignity of passing.)
Day IV—Sunday, April 24
Like an awful circle of malicious
Intent, I felt, my fifty-something
Birthday I circled back to you
In bed again, finding your hand
In that way that babies follow their fists
I swung round the Earth of you,
Your moon, with your eyes, your
Smile, all the things I can’t see now.
My breathing took on your cadence
As I used to try to do when you let
Us all pile into bed with you
To protect us from thunderstorms—
I tried to match your slow inspiration,
Expiration, feeling I could will you
Back if I breathed with you.
A Ferris wheel at a strip mall
On the edge of town
Lets down a gondola seat
And two giddy teenagers
Fling themselves heedlessly,
Breathlessly, into the flickering
Night, their bodies prime—
It could be mother and father
Boots and Pancho, setting out.
Unaware that in sight from
The highest seat—
In the small, clean hospital
Someone’s mother is dying.
As the wheel spins again,
They might feel her spirit rising.
Norma Gay Prewett
With some of August
caught in batting,
the pilled lump of pallet
smells the way she did.
Tobacco, woodsmoke, slippery shale
Each layer a generation, another summer.
Hot, hootowl, heartripping cry,
and then the whippoorwill.
Cottonbound, snapping beans on porch-swings
cracking rocks out of pockets in the hills
to show me “pretties.”
Cottonbound, you glittered one night
across snowfields in Wisconsin
Snow and cotton bound me up with you.
Next day they called to say
you had passed while padding
a quilt, “jist as natchrul …”
“Fluid about the heart or gout,” they said,
But I felt you had not passed from that,
but from yearning to catch Old Time
on a line and sinker, draw him by a pincer,
match his eye.
You cached these crazy notions in the quilt.
Sunbonnet … flour sack … Sunday silk,
though your berry mind was not in it, but
Out uprooting hens and finding speckled eggs,
fretting barefoot where the milksnakes
crawl as thick as mud and big around as your ankle.
About if the booger man was real, then
what—and if Jesus hung that long, or if
tickfever would bring you down this year.
You “probly” knew, six hundred miles away,
I grew to you like a snail to its shell, or a
chameleon lizard to your well bucket, or
bachelor buttons to the clay.
You most likely knew my fear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)