cambridge book review

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